We're baaack!

TODD SAELHOF -- Calgary Sun

, Last Updated: 11:48 AM ET


 Finally, the NHL playoffs came back to Calgary in 2004.

 After seven springs of watching their league peers compete for the right to hoist the Stanley Cup, hard work, fast feet and a renewed sense of commitment cast the Calgary Flames as post-season participants for the first time since 1996.

 And along with it came relief, excitement and a new hockey challenge for the small-market Flames.

 "It feels different," said assistant captain Craig Conroy on the eve of the Stanley Cup playoffs. "This is what it's all about. You come here and the matchup is there. You're going over their team. You're scouting. It's hard to sleep. You're laying in bed thinking about it."

 "This feels good," added captain Jarome Iginla.

 "But at the same time, it's business, too."

 And so the Flames took to the business at hand, beginning with Round 1 against the Vancouver Canucks.

 The Canucks finished the regular season as the third seed in the Western Conference, thanks to 101 points to crown them as the Northwest Division champs.

 But despite enjoying a seven-point bulge on the Flames in the final standings, the Canucks boasted just one more win than the Flames over the 82-game regular-season schedule.

 Further forecasting a tight round was a 3-2-1 season-series record favouring the Canucks.

 The playoffs began April 7 at GM Place with the hosts dominating in a 5-3 win. The Canucks scored early and often, using the powerplay to score four goals.

 The Game 1 loss left the Flames to wonder about their lack of discipline and fans to be reminded of the fact the Flames hadn't won a playoff round since their 1989 Cup year.

 "It wasn't our game at all," Iginla said. "We didn't nearly play good enough. Maybe we were waiting to see what a playoff game was like and I'll tell you, it's not that much different. It's still hockey. We still have to do what was successful for us earlier -- that's strong defence, play with discipline and have a good penalty kill. That wasn't the way we can play."

 GM/head coach Darryl Sutter called out his captain and Iginla responded with a huge effort in Game 2. Meanwhile, Miikka Kiprusoff put on the kind of goaltending performance that made him a Vezina Trophy finalist during the regular season. And the Flames followed the lead of their two stars to take Game 2 by a 2-1 score.

 The Flames would win the next two of three, including a dominating 4-0 win in Game 4 before a raucous Sea of Red crowd at the Saddledome.

 "That's our recipe for success," said Flames playoff veteran Rhett Warrener, referring to Iginla and Kiprusoff. "Hard work and we rely on those two a little heavier."

 Then, Warrener and Co. relied on resilience to pull off the series upset.

 Despite rallying from a four-goal deficit in Game 6 at the 'Dome, the Flames lost a heartbreaker in triple overtime on a slick individual effort by Canucks star Brendan Morrison.

 But instead of letting it rattle them, the Flames went into Vancouver to pull out the thrilling 3-2 overtime win in Game 7.

 Again they shook off the heartbreak of allowing a tying goal with 5.7 seconds remaining in regulation when Martin Gelinas scored on a goalmouth scramble just 85 seconds into overtime. His first of three series-clinching goals for the Flames in these playoffs sent the hard-working club into the second round and gave the fans in Calgary their first opening-round triumph in 15 years.

 "It's a huge sense of pride," said Flames defenceman Andrew Ference. "In this day in sports, you hear it's all (about) money. But I'll tell you, when they showed on TV in the change room the street in Calgary where the fans are celebrating and waving flags, the boys in here gave a pretty big cheer."

 It would be the first of many major playoff celebrations to come.


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