UNIQUE CUP FOR­MAT WOULDN’T CHEAPEN WIN, FLAMES SAY

Coach and cap­tain agree the road to vic­tory harder than ever be­fore

Calgary Herald - - SPORTS - WES GILBERTSON wgilbert­son@post­media.com Twit­ter.com/wes­gilbert­son

These cham­pi­onship rings wouldn’t sparkle any less.

With the NHL’S re­turn-to-play plan now an­nounced, al­beit with no firm time­line, the Cal­gary Flames know the iden­tity of their open­ing-round op­po­nent and can start to day­dream about what would be an ar­du­ous and un­usual quest to lay claim to the Stan­ley Cup.

That is never an easy task. And although some fans and tra­di­tion­al­ists will gripe about the 24-team play­off for­mat, that is one thing that hasn’t changed.

In fact, the Flames’ coach and cap­tain both be­lieve it could be tougher than ever to get your name en­graved on the NHL’S big­gest prize in 2020.

“In or­der for us to win a

Stan­ley Cup, we have to win five rounds, so it’s more rounds than what you would nor­mally be look­ing at,” said Flames in­terim bench boss Geoff Ward on Wed­nes­day’s video con­fer­ence with lo­cal me­dia. “So the as­ter­isk — if it’s put there — for me, would mean it could po­ten­tially be the harder Cup to win than what we’ve seen in the past.

“You’re go­ing to go through the same grind. It ba­si­cally is go­ing to be a tour­na­ment like we have ev­ery year. But I just feel, with the ex­tra round for the teams that have to play in, it could be the hard­est Cup to win.”

The Flames are among those teams.

As the eighth seed in the Western Con­fer­ence, they’ll be fac­ing off against the ninth-ranked Win­nipeg Jets in the so-called play-in or qual­i­fi­ca­tion round.

That best-of-five se­ries likely wouldn’t start un­til late July, at the ear­li­est, which could mean two months worth of night­mares for some fans about Con­nor Helle­buyck’s po­ten­tial to steal games or Pa­trik Laine’s abil­ity to rip one-timers on the power play.

More top of mind, likely, will be ques­tions about whether Johnny Gau­dreau can be a spring dif­fer­ence-maker and whether David Rit­tich or Cam Tal­bot — whomever is be­tween the pipes — can shake off the rust and out­duel Helle­buyck.

“I feel like there is a big des­per­a­tion amongst us,” de­clared Flames cap­tain Mark Gior­dano on Wed­nes­day’s vir­tual con­fer­ence. “We’re not con­tent any­more with just get­ting there. One year, we got in and we went to the sec­ond round (by beat­ing Vancouver in 2015) and it was viewed as a suc­cess­ful sea­son. But for us, talk­ing amongst each other and af­ter the dis­ap­point­ment last year, I think we’re hun­gry to get in and make a run and re­ally put our bod­ies and sacri­fice our­selves to get to that next level.”

This play­off run, when­ever it starts, will be a one-of-a-kind.

The skat­ing stars will be quar­an­tined in hub cities, com­pet­ing in empty rinks and tested for COVID-19 ev­ery evening.

Dur­ing Tues­day’s na­tion­ally tele­vised an­nounce­ment, NHL com­mis­sioner Gary Bettman left the door open for the first and sec­ond round — like the qual­i­fi­ca­tion se­ries — to be con­tested, pos­si­bly, as a best-of-five.

Even in that un­likely sce­nario, the Flames would still need to notch at least 17 spring … er … sum­mer wins to reach their goal.

They might not be able to smooch or sip from the Stan­ley Cup, but that wouldn’t di­min­ish the achieve­ment.

“When peo­ple talk about the as­ter­isk, I think what peo­ple in the pub­lic are talk­ing about are teams that, in other years, wouldn’t have got­ten into the play­offs with where they’re sit­ting right now,” Gior­dano said. “We’re not one of those teams.

“I re­ally feel like it’s go­ing to be a harder Cup to win than most years — if not the hard­est — be­cause of A) the num­ber of rounds and B) the strength of the teams and the health of the teams. It’s go­ing to be ev­ery team at their best, ba­si­cally.”

The 2020 Stan­ley Cup play­offs, de­spite all the strange­ness and si­lence, will de­ter­mine the best of this un­for­get­table sea­son.

Ward owns a cham­pi­onship ring from 2011, back when he was an as­sis­tant coach with the Bos­ton Bru­ins.

If he can lead the Flames to a ti­tle af­ter this pro­longed pan­demic pause, this one wouldn’t sparkle any less.

“Who­ever wins, be­lieve me, there is go­ing to be no sort of feel­ing like, ‘Oh, it was a cheap year. It was some­thing dif­fer­ent. It wasn’t nor­mal,’ ” Ward said. “Who­ever is crowned the Stan­ley Cup cham­pion is go­ing to take an aw­ful lot of pride in that.”

I think we’re hun­gry to get in and make a run and re­ally put our bod­ies and sacri­fice our­selves to get to that next level.

MARK GIOR­DANO

KEVIN KING FILES

Cal­gary Flames cap­tain Mark Gior­dano, cen­tre, soon will be re­new­ing hos­til­i­ties with the Win­nipeg Jets in the up­com­ing “play-in” round.

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