Juuso Valimaki’s first taste of the Stanley Cup playoffs turned out to be just an appetizer.
A grand total of 33:33 of ice time for the Calgary Flames’ rookie rearguard, highlighted by his first post-season assist and lowlighted by the agony of elimination two nights later.
“It’s a really empty feeling,” Valimaki said after Friday’s handshaker — a 5-1 thumping from the Colorado Avalanche at the Saddledome. “There’s no stage where it’s this big, where you want to win and the goal is as big as it is, right? So when you don’t chase it anymore, it feels weird. Obviously, you’re disappointed.
“Everybody has to look at the mirror and see what’s there, what we could have done better. But right now, it just feels empty.”
Less than a week ago, Valimaki’s playoff stat-sheet was empty.
The 20-year-old defenceman, plugged into the Flames’ lineup for Games 4 and 5 against the Avalanche, certainly didn’t seem overwhelmed, certainly didn’t stick out as the youngest or greenest guy on the roster.
In fact, he wasn’t on the ice for a single goal against, an especially encouraging sign since the opposition scored eight times — including three on the power-play — during those pair of clashes.
Valimaki finished his first post-season stint with one assist, one hit and a plus-one rating.
He was among the nine Flames to log their first debuts during the first-round ouster — a list that includes fellow defencemen Rasmus Andersson and Noah Hanifin, plus forwards Austin Czarnik, Garnet Hathaway, Mark Jankowski, Elias Lindholm, Andrew Mangiapane and Derek Ryan. (Backup netminder David Rittich is still stuck on zero but will also benefit from a close-up look at the atmosphere and intensity of spring hockey.)
“You just see how it is … This is as hard as it gets, right?” Valimaki said. “The playoffs is the time where all of us want to play in the future, too. This was my first taste of it, so I have to keep it in the back of my head going into the summer, going into next year, knowing what it’s like and what it takes. It’s not easy. It’s frickin’ hard.”
The Flames, after racking up 50 regular-season wins but mustering just one measly playoff victory, will congregate Monday at the Saddledome for their exit meetings and medicals.
There is loads of disappointment to digest still.
As the sting subsides, there is also plenty to be optimistic about.
The arrival of Valimaki — a first-round pick in the 2017 NHL Draft and now with 26 nights of big-league know-how — is one of many feel-good stories from the 2018-19 campaign.
His playoff appetizer, no doubt, will leave him hungry for more.
“Every time you get to play here, whatever time of the year it is, it’s where you want to be and it’s where you learn,” Valimaki said after Friday’s series- and season-ending defeat to the Avalanche. “It’s hard to look at any positives right now, but I think there were a lot of good things for the whole group and for me, too. When it’s that time, we all have to look at the positive things and take them out and also learn from the mistakes and things we can do better.
“Because I think this group has a bright future. We have a lot of young guys, we have tons of skill and a lot of good leadership. So there’s a bright future. We’ll be up top one day.”
Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2019