Longtime Flames relish playoff opportunity

It was a new sensation for Calgary Flames defenceman Denis Gauthier.

A wide range of emotions surged through the blue-liner moments after his club secured its first post-season berth in eight years. Excitement. Shock. Satisfaction.

He'd finally earned a trip to the dance after spending his entire seven-year NHL career with the Flames on the outside looking in at the playoff picture.

"It's pretty unreal – it's been a long time coming. It's a relief," Gauthier said after the Flames secured its playoff spot with last Wednesday's 1-0 triumph over the Phoenix Coyotes.

"I'm not sure how to react. I'm so happy but we still have some work to do and I don't want to get too excited right now."

The Flames last taste of playoff play came in 1996. It didn't last long, as the Chicago Blackhawks promptly swept Calgary in the opening round.

The Flames haven't experienced the post-season since. That changes Wednesday when the Flames begin a seven-game first-round series with the Vancouver Canucks (Game 1, Wednesday, CBC, 10:30 p.m. EST).

Gauthier joined the club as a rookie the following season, making this year's run that much sweeter.

The Flames blue-liner isn't alone in his anticipation. Calgary captain Jarome Iginla was also with the Flames for each of those seven playoff-free seasons.

"It has been a long time, let's be honest," said Iginla, the Flames' leading scorer . "It feels awesome, we've worked very hard this season.

"It's been hard at the end of each season being out and watching other teams competing for the Stanley Cup."

Like Gauthier, Iginla's first full rookie season in 1996-97. However, the Flames' sniper played in two games of the 1996 Blackhawks series. They were Iginla's first two career NHL appearances – playoff or otherwise.

Iginla was once again was the fuel that drove the Flames' offence this season, leading the club in goals and points.

However, a lot of the accolades and praise have been heaped on Miikka Kiprusoff – a player the Flames acquired from the San Jose Sharks earlier this season for a second-round draft pick.

Kiprusoff was supposed to give the Flames some added netminding depth after an injury sidelined No. 1 starter Roman Turek. He did much more than that.

Kiprusoff was outstanding en route to swiping the top job from Turek. He led the league in save percentage and goals-against average and has been mentioned as a contender for the Vezina Trophy as the league's top goalie and the Hart Trophy as the NHL's most valuable player.

"Kiprusoff is a big part of the reason we are where we are this season," Gauthier a. "He's not a Vezina and Hart candidate for nothing."

Kiprusoff was sensational again in the Flames' clinching game, stopping 27 shots and posting his fourth shutout of the season.

"It was fitting for him to get the shutout to get us into the playoffs," said Iginla. "All year he's been standing on his head."

Kiprusoff made his way into the NHL record books this year by finishing with a 1.69 goals-against-average, a new modern-day NHL record.

Dallas Stars netminder Marty Turco set the old mark just last season, with a 1.72 GAA.

Like his teammates, Kiprusoff is also thrilled with his team's ability to snap its lengthy playoff drought.

"It's great. That was our goal."

with files from Canadian Press