Evaluating the Flames’ potential first round opponents

The Calgary Flames officially booked their ticket to the 2019 post season last week after a short one year hiatus. It’s been almost four years since the Flames last enjoyed a series victory, let alone a playoff game victory; they are hoping to fix that this time around. With the team currently in first place in the Western Conference, the Flames have given themselves an extraordinary advantage in terms of positioning.

While the number one spot in the west has not been clinched as of yet, the odds are looking favourable for the Flames. Currently holding a 47-22-7 record with 101 points, the Flames have a six point point cushion over the San Jose Sharks with just six games remaining. Anything can happen over the final few weeks, but the Flames hold all the cards in their hand.

The focus when it comes to clinching the division turns towards the Flames’ first round opponent. Regardless of where the Flames sit in the standings, there is no guarantee of success when it comes to the playoffs. In every series, the underdogs will always vie for an upset.

Assuming the Flames finish in first place, which has a higher likelihood of occurring than not, they would face the second wild card team. As it stands right now, there are five teams that could realistically finish in that position: The Arizona Coyotes, Chicago Blackhawks, Colorado Avalanche, Dallas Stars, and Minnesota Wild. How do the teams stack up? Let’s take a look:

The Opponents

Arizona Coyotes

Record (Points)Season SeriesCF%SCF%HDCF%SV%PP%PK%GF/GPGA/GP
37-33-7 (81)3-1-048.9% (19th)48.3% (22nd)47.6% (21st)91.8% (18th)16.7% (23rd)85.5% (1st)2.57 (28th)2.76 (10th)

Starting off with probably the biggest surprise among the contenders, the Arizona Coyotes have overcome a massive amount of injuries to push for a playoff spot this season. As it stands, they are currently tied with the Avalanche for the final wild card spot but are on the outside looking in since Colorado has a game in hand.

The Coyotes aren’t necessarily the flashiest team in terms of offence, ranking 28th in goals for per game played, but have used a scoring by committee approach to get by. They currently have 11 players with double digit goals, but not a single one has scored more than 50 points; less than ideal.

Where they have found success this season is on the penalty kill, where they rank first in the NHL. They also have been led by a reinvigorated Darcy Kuemper in net for the latter half of the season. While they still are missing a few key players, including their supposed number one goaltender Antti Raanta, they have gotten some key contributors back at the perfect time.

The Flames have taken care of business against the Coyotes this season. While their last match-up ended in a 2-0 shutout at the hands of Kuemper, the Flames took the previous three contests with a combined score of 18-4. The Flames clearly hold the offensive edge, but also sport a better defensive corps and slightly better goaltending.

Even if the Coyotes were able to slip into the second wild card spot, they would be largely untested when it comes to the postseason. The edge goes to the Flames in this matchup.

Calgary FlamesArizona Coyotes
Offence Offence
Defence Defence
Goaltending Goaltending
Special Teams Special Teams
Experience Experience

Chicago Blackhawks

Record (Points)Season SeriesCF%SCF%HDCF%SV%PP%PK%GF/GPGA/GP
33-33-10 (76)3-0-049.3% (17th)46.9% (26th)42.8% (31st)91.6% (23rd)20.7% (11th)73.3% (31st)3.28 (8th)3.60 (30th)

The Chicago Blackhawks post one of the more interesting scenarios. Spending much of the season at the bottom of the standings, the Blackhawks somehow clawed their way back into the playoff conversation. That being said, there is a very very slim chance they make the final cut at all, especially after their loss last night to the Coyotes. So take this match-up with a grain of salt.

There is no doubt the Blackhawks hold some of the best playoff experience compared to other teams on this list, but outside of that there isn’t much going in their favour. This season, their statistical numbers have been simply dreadful. They are dead last in high danger corsi-for percentage and penalty kill percentage, and also allow the second most goals against per game played.

Although Patrick Kane has had a phenomenal season and Alex DeBrincat and Dylan Strome have rekindled their junior glory, when compared to the Flames, the Blackhawks are far more shallow. The Flames’ depth may be the biggest discrepancy between these two teams. From Johnny Gaudreau‘s stellar season to Andrew Mangiapane‘s fourth line surge, their depth is much more enviable compared to Chicago’s.

The goaltending match up is a toss up, even if the stats show otherwise. If fully healthy, Corey Crawford would be undeniably the best goaltender in this series. Since his status is still a question mark (and a big question mark at that) the match up in between the pipes would be a bit more even if Cam Ward is in net.

Lastly, the Flames swept the season series. So even if the Blackhawks squeak in, the Flames might even hold a mental edge. Even if hockey players aren’t superstitious, they might be a little “stitious”.

Calgary FlamesChicago Blackhawks
Offence Offence
Defence Defence
Goaltending Goaltending
Special Teams Special Teams
Experience Experience

Colorado Avalanche

Record (Points)Season SeriesCF%SCF%HDCF%SV%PP%PK%GF/GPGA/GP
34-29-13 (81)3-0-050.3% (12th)51.5% (12th)49.8% (18th)92.3% (9th)21.9% (8th)77.6% (28th)3.14 (10th)3.00 (17th)

The Colorado Avalanche would be the team the Flames face if the playoffs started today. This season, the Flames swept the Avalanche, albeit in close games that could have gone either way. The Avalanche were riding high at the start of the season, but the second half of the season has been a different story.

Their offence is easily the best out of the possible opponents, with Nathan MacKinnon, Mikko Rantanen, and Gabriel Landeskog leading the way. Outside of that trio, the depth falls off a cliff, especially with the latter two players being held out due to injury. That is not to discount the other players on the roster, but the discrepancies between Colorado’s top line and the rest of their skaters cannot be ignored.

The goaltending in Colorado is clearly the big advantage over the Flames. With veteran Semyon Varlamov taking the crease early in the season, and now Philipp Grubauer taking over the reins, they both hold an advantage over the Flames’ goaltending duo at the moment.

In terms of special teams, although Colorado’s penalty kill may be one of the worst in the league, their power play is one of the most dangerous. Any opportunity for the Avalanche on the man-advantage would be a huge challenge for the Flames to defend against.

In a very slight advantage, the Flames would hold the edge in a series. That being said, it can’t go unmentioned that the Avalanche are playing well as of late. Compared to the previous two match ups, this would be less favourable for the Flames.

Calgary FlamesColorado Avalanche
Offence Offence
Defence Defence
Goaltending Goaltending
Special Teams Special Teams
Experience Experience

Dallas Stars

Record (Points)Season SeriesCF%SCF%HDCF%SV%PP%PK%GF/GPGA/GP
39-31-6 (84)0-1-148.3% (22nd)50.4% (15th)52.8% (8th)93.6% (1st)19.3% (16th)82.0% (5th)2.54 (29th)2.46 (2nd)

Here is where things start to get dicey for the Flames. The Dallas Stars currently hold the first wild card position by three points, and look to be nestling into that spot. Things could change, but the Stars are a strong enough team to hold their ground.

Also of note, the Flames last win came against the Stars came in December of 2016. With their last meeting of the season coming tonight, that may change, but the Stars just seem to have the Flames’ number.

The Stars play a very shrewd defensive game, currently allowing the second fewest goals per game in the NHL, while also getting outstanding goaltending. Ben Bishop has jumped right into the Vezina conversation, and along with Anton Khudobin, they form the best SV% pairing in the NHL. They have a mid-range power play, but rank fifth in penalty killing, making it equally as difficult on either side of special teams.

Their offence may be muted in comparison to the Flames’, but somehow Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn always find a way to show up against the Flames. In addition to their playoff experience and physical style of play, this would be the first round match up the Flames would want to completely avoid.

Calgary FlamesDallas Stars
Offence Offence
Defence Defence
Goaltending Goaltending
Special Teams Special Teams
Experience Experience

Minnesota Wild

Record (Points)Season SeriesCF%SCF%HDCF%SV%PP%PK%GF/GPGA/GP
35-33-9 (79)2-1-051.2% (10th)53.3% (5th)56.2% (2nd)91.5% (25th)20.5% (13th)81.1% (11th)2.62 (27th)2.86 (11th)

The Wild’s season has very much been a roller-coaster. Starting out at the top, falling down much lower than expected, and now leveling out in a state of mediocrity, they are currently out of a playoff spot. The Wild have gone 3-6-1 in their past 10 games; the worst record of all the teams on this list. They are slumping yet again at the wrong time, and don’t have any games in hand at the moment that could help.

This season, the Flames won two out of three contests in affairs that contained the most bad blood of any season series. That animosity would be an interesting subplot for the series, but breaking it down in terms of statistics, the Wild suddenly have the advantage.

The Wild have above average power play and penalty kill percentages, while also sporting the 11th ranked goals against per game played. They also sport top five numbers in terms of scoring chances. Unfortunately that hasn’t translated into goals.

The Wild have the better goaltending with Devan Dubnyk, and slightly more playoff experience, but the Flames have the better offence and defence. It’s a bit of a toss-up really, but the Wild do technically hold the edge when looking at the numbers. With the Wild sliding, it doesn’t look like a first round match up is very likely for these two teams at all.

Calgary FlamesMinnesota Wild
Offence Offence
Defence Defence
Goaltending Goaltending
Special Teams Special Teams
Experience Experience

Who should they face?

I think there is no doubt that the Flames would love to face the likes of the Coyotes or Blackhawks in the first round. Both teams, although they have their strengths, pose much more advantageous match ups than other teams. The one clear thing is that the Flames need to avoid the Stars in the first round, as they actually may be at a huge disadvantage. The real question is would the Flames be better off with a more challenging test to prepare for later rounds?

It is more likely they face either the Wild or the Avalanche, with the latter being my personal pick. A Flames vs. Avalanche series would provide a decently challenging opponent, while also giving the Flames a strong chance at advancing to the second round.

What are your thoughts? Who do you think the Flames will face in the first round? Let us know

Photo by: Gerry Thomas / National Hockey League / Getty

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