The Calgary Flames were Canada's feel-good story of the year, rivaled across the
NHL only by Tampa Bay, which bested Calgary in an intense seven-game Stanley Cup final.
General manager-coach Darryl Sutter took the best of what was left by
previous GMs Al Coates (Jarome Iginla and Robyn Regehr) and Craig Button (Craig Conroy and Jordan Leopold, among others) and added his own trade
touches (Miikka Kiprusoff, Steven Reinprecht).
The ecstatic result in Cowtown was the first playoff berth after a seven-year run of bad luck and the first victory in a playoff series since the Cup-winning run of 1989.
Behind Kiprusoff, a third-stringer in San Jose who arrived in December, and Iginla, a Hart Trophy finalist, the Flames spontaneously combusted.
They finished 42-30-7-3 for 94 points. Every move that Sutter made seemed to pay off, such as in-season deals for glue-type players Chris Simon, Ville Nieminen and Marcus Nilson. All played key playoff roles. The Flames overcame injury after injury -- especially on defense -- to scuttle division winners Vancouver, Detroit and San Jose en route to the finals.
Fairly brandishing his tight budget, Sutter never blinked when No.1 center Conroy -- a two-way force, faceoff ace and caddy for Iginla -- took the free-agent limo to L.A. for a four-year deal averaging over $3 million per year.
Sutter clearly has a plan and is glued to it, as he explained to ESPN.com's Tom Wheatley:
ESPN.com: Can you start by assessing last season and postseason?
"We really stuck with our goal: to compete for a playoff spot. We learned a lot through adversity, through injuries. They made us a better team and helped us with the team concept.
"There was a lot of unfair pressure on our top players in the past. They were responsible for winning and losing. And it helped them when everyone was accountable around them.
"And we just stuck to our plan to be one of 16 teams in the playoffs. Then our goal was to cut it in half. The biggest thing we learned was how hard it is to make the playoffs.
"We had a lot of guys who hadn't been in a playoff race. After New Year's every year, they were out of it. And they enjoyed it once they got there."
ESPN.com: Which player had the biggest impact?
"You'd have to say Kiprusoff. He came in because of injuries in December and stole the show, and kept us in a good spot.
"We traded for a 27-year-old goalie who we wanted to give a chance to. And to do as well as he did spoke volumes."
ESPN.com: Which player needs to take the next big step?
"Two guys. On defense, Toni Lydman probably didn't get to the level last year that all the other kids did. Injuries probably affected that a little bit, but he signed a big contract last summer. He has the ability to be such a good player.
"Up front, Chuck Kobasew's a kid on right wing that we thought would fit in right behind Jarome Iginla, and he just didn't get there. He played really well in the playoffs but he has to score. He had trouble doing that, so he lost that spot and went down from the second spot to the fourth.
"But he's a hard-working kid. He will be there eventually. You have to remember, he just finished his second year. We're probably a little unfair in that projection, but we need our young players to take on more of a leadership role. We're not going to bring in older players to do that."
ESPN.com: Who in the system is ready for the NHL?
"Maybe Brent Krahn as the backup goalie. He's just a second-year pro. He spent last year between Lowell and San Antonio.
"That's where the fight will be, between him and (Roman) Turek for the backup job. "
ESPN.com: The top priority to improve the organization?
"Just keep getting younger. To me, the playoff run doesn't change the mindset. We were an underdog all the way through. We played two Game 7s in the playoffs and won one of them. We need to be where we're the favorite and not an underdog.
"We know you're not going to get everything at once. We were able to trade for a goalie who helps us and we were able to make our defense younger. And it might get even younger if Dion Phaneuf can make the team. He was our first-rounder last year from Red Deer.
"We're a younger team now than we were at the start of last year, and we will get younger. And our nucleus guys will grow together."
ESPN.com: Your favorite moment from last year?
"What sticks out for me most was winning the Western Conference (against San Jose) in our building, scoring in overtime to win it.
"The other thing was losing Game 6 in triple overtime to Vancouver. I'm not saying I knew we would come back and win Game 7. But when you're down 4-nothing and come back to tie it up and lose in triple overtime, you know what your team's made of."
ESPN.com: Least favorite moment?
"Trading Jamie McLennan (to the Rangers). He's one of my favorite guys. Something that gets overlooked in our season is that he won 11 or 12 games for us. When we got Kiprusoff, I thought we could still handle the Turek contract and keep three goalies.
"Even though I talked to Jamie about it, and told him there's a chance he might get put in a deal somewhere, it was still hard to do it. He was such an important part of our locker room. Just because he wasn't there in the playoffs, that doesn't mean he didn't have a lot to do with what we did."
ESPN.com: What activity or destination will take you furthest from hockey this summer?
"I went to the draft in Carolina! (laughter) And I'm going to Panoka, home of Val Fonteyne, for the rodeo for four days in July. It's just a two-hour drive, but it's still a long way from hockey."
Tom Wheatley is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com. He is the co-author of Bob Plager's "Tales from the Blues Bench" and "The Memoirs of Bing Devine," both available from Sports Publishing LLC.