Calgary Flames

Sunday Census: Playoffs! The goalie debate and x-factors for the Flames

Welcome back to The Sunday Census. Throughout the week, The Win Column will be posing topical and intriguing polls on Twitter (@wincolumnblog) to gauge the fan-base’s stance on pressing issues. Want to make sure your opinion is taken into effect? Vote in the polls, start a debate, and propose alternative suggestions on the polls!

The training camp portion of the return to play plan has officially concluded, and teams will travel to hub cities today. The Flames have a shorter trip to their hub city than all other teams in the West, outside of Edmonton of course. The next big event on the calendar: an exhibition tuneup game against the Oilers on Tuesday night.

From what the practice groups looked like that past few days, it looks as though the Flames have settled on who will be part of their main roster group. Lines look like this:

Gaudreau – Monahan – Lindholm
Tkachuk – Backlund – Mangiapane
Lucic – Ryan – Dube
Bennett – Jankowski – Rieder – Rinaldo (rotating)

And defense pairings look like this:

Giordano – Brodie
Hanifin – Andersson
Forbort – Gustafsson

We also know which two goalies will serve on the main roster, and no surprises that it’s David Rittich and Cam Talbot. However, we don’t know which of the two is the number one, who will suit up for the exhibition game, and who is tabbed as the starter in Game 1 against the Jets in less than one week’s time.

We polled Flames fans on who they thought would be the “opening night” goaltender for the Flames, and the results swung in the favour of Rittich:

Earlier in the week, Khalid broke down the effectiveness of each goaltender in different situations this season, and which would be the best fit to match against the Jets’ offense.

It was interesting to see that Rittich was the better goalie when looking at high danger chances against, and Talbot was better at stopping medium danger chances. Normally you’d think the goalie who can stop the higher danger shots is the best choice, but that might not be the case here.

The Jets’ offense is heavily reliant on shots from medium danger. That’s the area their snipers like Patrik Laine and Mark Scheifele shine the brightest, and that’s the area the Flames will want to limit chances against from. If that’s the are of focus of the team, Talbot would then be the natural choice as he’s the best goalie on the roster at stopping shots from those areas.

It’s obviously not that cut and dry as you don’t have a lot of room for error in a short five game series. From the way Geoff Ward has used Rittich in training camp and especially the scrimmages, it looks like the coaching staff is leaning towards Rittich as the starter. This is despite Talbot seeming calmer and steadier in net during the scrimmages and Rittich letting in quite a few more goals over those three practice games.

Practice isn’t the game though, and Rittich looked shaky in the training camp to open the season too; he then went on to be one of the league’s best goalies in the first half of the season and was named an all-star because of it.

If there’s a problem you’ll never complain about it’s having too much depth. Whichever way the Flames go, they’ll be putting in a goalie who gives the team a chance to win. That’s the most important thing above all else.

If we had to handicap it though, it looks like the fans are right on this one: Rittich is likely to start for the Flames against the Jets. That being said, the leash is probably incredibly short and if the Flames don’t win Game 1, it’s almost a guarantee that Talbot will start in Game 2.

This storyline has been with the team all season now; there’s no reason to expect it to go away now!

Our second poll of the week dealt with the overall team in the playoffs, and who the Flames’ x-factor would be. We provided four options, but there were quite a few write-ins as well:

The definition of x-factor is the variable that most contributes to the outcome. We did get a few complaints that picking an x-factor from the team’s best players isn’t fair, but those are the players that should contribute the most to the outcome of the games. Those are the players the team relies on and those players need to show up. The reason for the Flames’ loss in the first round of last year’s playoffs is arguably because their best players didn’t show up. They won’t be able to flip the script this season of those same players are absent again.

Matthew Tkachuk was the winner in the poll with almost 40% of respondents choosing him as the team’s x-factor. It’s hard to argue with that pick either. Tkachuk was definitely the x-factor in the regular season and his style of play seems perfectly suited to playoff hockey. The Jets aren’t as physical a team as they have been in the past, but the playoffs are a different animal and Tkachuk’s willingness to mix things up will be vital for the Flames’ success in the playoffs.

A pair of diminutive players finished closely in second and third place: Andrew Mangiapane and Johnny Gaudreau. Mangiapane was one of the best breakout stories of the year, and he’s fit in perfectly on the second line next to Tkachuk and Mikael Backlund. He’s driven offense, played solid defense, and was on pace for 20 goals at the pause. He’s definitely become a key contributor on the team and his ability to score goals will be important in the postseason. Gaudreau is still the team’s most dynamic offensive player and when he’s on his game he makes life very hard for opposing teams. The Avalanche did a great job last year shutting him down though, and as Gaudreau struggled to produce, it felt like the whole team slumped with him. He still stirs the offensive drink and for the Flames to advance past the Jets, Gaudreau will need to figure out how to create offense. He’s definitely an x-factor for the team.

Sam Bennett finished in a distant fourth place. For a player who has a reputation for being a playoff performer, it was a bit of a surprise to see very few fans choose him as an x-factor for the team. Other players receiving write-in votes were Milan Lucic with quite a few, Dillon Dube after a stellar camp, Rasmus Andersson after a promotion to the second pairing, and Talbot in net.

The Jets are a scary team and if the Flames want to move past them, all of these players will need to play a part.

Want to be a part of the conversation next time around? Follow us on Twitter @wincolumnblog and be sure to keep a look out for our polls throughout the week.

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