The Calgary Flames just needed a short road trip to get them to Edmonton in preparation for the 2020 Playoffs. The return of Calgary Flames hockey draws even closer now, with the Flames’ Phase 4 roster announced and their first exhibition game being mere hours away.
The Flames suit up against the Edmonton Oilers for one more Battle of Alberta prior to facing the Winnipeg Jets in their best-of-five play-in series. We thought now was a perfect time as any to gauge what the TWC team is thinking about the state of the Flames heading into the playoffs.
Who will be the Flames’ X-Factor in the first round?
Karim Kurji: I think the Flames’ x-factor will be Johnny Gaudreau. If he can drive his line’s offence, the Flames will have a much better chance of solving Connor Hellebuyck, which is the only area I’m really concerned about in this opening series.
Gaudreau created a ton of chances last season despite everyone thinking he didn’t show up in the playoffs, so if he can improve on that this year and the pucks actually go in, the Flames will be in good shape. The benefits of a hot Gaudreau ripple down the lineup as well and the team will be in a better overall shape if he’s on his game.
Jon Donville: I agree with Karim on this one, I think it has to be Gaudreau. This Flames roster just does not make sense when Johnny and his line aren’t scoring at an elite pace. There is not enough scoring in the bottom-six, and even the second line is best used as a checking line with Mikael Backlund and Matthew Tkachuk playing the two-way game so well. Gaudreau has to produce, or else the Flames will be in tough.
John MacKinnon: In terms of “x-factor”, I’m going to go off the board a bit here: Milan Lucic. Now before you close the site tab, hear me out. Lucic’s tenure in Calgary didn’t get off to the best start, but up until the NHL stoppage, #17 had been playing some of his best hockey.
His chemistry with Dillon Dube was evident, and even in the team scrimmages we could see that continue alongside Sam Bennett as well. Out of the entire Flames roster, Lucic has the most playoff experience and has a Stanley Cup on his belt as well. In this short turnaround and strange circumstances, it wouldn’t be surprising to see Lucic continue his strong play and be a huge factor in the series.
Winnipeg isn’t necessarily the biggest team to go up against, and although the game has transitioned to more skill, there is no doubting that having Lucic in the Flames lineup could be a huge added benefit.
Khalid Keshavjee: I think the Flames’ x-factor is Mark Giordano. The Flames will need to get scoring from their top players, but will need to be effective at shutting down the Jets top guys. This is where Gio excels.
The reigning Norris Trophy winner has not been as offensively dynamite this season, but he has been reliable on the back end, and will be called on to help shut down the Jets top guys. He will also likely be quarterbacking the second power play unit, which has struggled to get going. If he can help direct chances on Hellebuyck and keep the Jets’ elite snipers from getting quality chances, it will go a long way to helping the Flames win the series.
Bill Tran: One player to definitely watch will be Andrew Mangiapane. Right before the season was paused, he really found his NHL groove. While the Jets might focus more on the Flames’ top line, there’s a good chance he’ll be overlooked.
There’s no doubt that having Tkachuk on your line will draw added attention, but Mangiapane was an ideal second-liner for the Flames, and if he continues to push his play, the Jets will have much to worry about. Feisty, diminutive, and dangerously underrated, Mangiapane could surprise the Jets and exploit their defensive woes.
Who will start more games between the pipes?
Karim: David Rittich. Cam Talbot‘s game does suit the Jets offence more, but Rittich has that fiery playoff personality and he’s got to be hungry to have some postseason success. I think he’s the better goalie, the goalie the Flames will be turning to in the years to come, and he deserves the chance to prove himself in the series.
Jon D: I think it will be Rittich in the end. I thought he was the MVP of the season in Calgary, and if he can get hot like he did at points earlier in the season, then he makes Calgary an interesting team. I think Talbot might be safer, but Rittich is my guy.
John M: Although the stats and the matchup strength point towards Talbot getting the nod, I’ve got to go with Rittich. He was the number one guy for the majority of the season, got his first All-Star nod, and really is core to the emotional heart beat of the team.
While last season, Mike Smith ended up being a decent decision for the playoffs, the team can’t really go two straight seasons saying “David Rittich is our guy” and not start him for the playoffs. I think he’s done enough over his tenure in Calgary to earn his stripes in net and perhaps it would be just the thing the team is looking for against Winnipeg.
Khalid: While I think Talbot should be the starter, the Flames will almost certainly turn to David Rittich to start the series. Rittich has never played in an NHL playoff game, and if he is to be the guy they fit their goaltending around, they need to make sure that he can perform when they need him most.
Talbot matches up better against the Jets, but coming off a season where he earned the same amount as Big Save Dave, Talbot may be outside of the Flames’ price range. Starting Rittich in the playoffs will show him that the team trusts him, and will help the Flames determine what they need to do in net for next season
Bill: While logic might suggest that Talbot would in fact be a better option, the heart is stronger than the mind, and Rittich should get the starts. Starting Rittich not only will bode well for the Flames’ relationship with the undrafted goaltender, but it’ll send the right message for the up and coming goaltenders in the system too.
Talbot suggested that he would look elsewhere in the offseason for a starting goaltender job, so some bad optics might arise if the Flames opt to sit Big Save Dave when he’s clearly put his heart and soul into the team.
Which line will be the most important in the series?
Karim: I think the second line of Tkachuk, Backlund, and Mangiapane will be the most important. Their job will likely be to neutralize the Kyle Connor, Mark Scheifele, and Blake Wheeler line for the Jets and that is no small task. They’ll have their hands full but if they can come out on top of the possession battle, that’ll tilt the scales massively in the Flames’ favour.
Jon D: It has to be the first line, or whatever line you call the one with Sean Monahan and Gaudreau. The Jets have some elite talent up front, and the Flames are unlikely to get a ton from their depth forwards. The first group needs to produce offensively.
John M: The top line is undoubtedly going to play a key role, but the 3M 2.0 line is by far the most important. They have the tough task of shutting down the Jets’ top line, while also providing a second offensive punch. The addition of Andrew Mangiapane after Michael Frolik‘s departure was a genius move, and I’m hoping that they continue that chemistry into the play-in round.
Khalid: The Flames will need the remixed 3M line to be their best. The way I see it they have two very important jobs. First, they have to be able to shut down one of the Jets’ top two lines. My bet would be that they see a lot of the Scheifele line, and will be matched up against them to counter the offensive threat.
The second is that they need to turn that defensive play into offensive opportunities. If the Flames are going to win, they need to be able to score on Hellebuyck, who has been absolutely dynamite all season. The 3M line needs to get a number of Grade-A chances on net, and ideally draw a number of penalties, so the Flames power play, especially the dangerous first unit can really test Hellebuyck.
Bill: It’ll be the first line of Monahan, Gaudreau, and Elias Lindholm. It’s generally expected that the second line will perform exceedingly well on the ice, so it’ll be the first line that will have to step up and be dangerous every shift. The first line can run amok against the battered Jets defence, and if they take advantage of this fact, they can be a force to reckon with.
Why will the Flames win?
Karim: The Jets are not a great offence creation team. They really struggle to generate high quality chances, and for a team whose forward group is decidedly better than their blueline, that’s a major issue. The Flames will win because they’ll be able to exploit the Jets’ decimated defence corps, and Winnipeg won’t be able to match that against the deep Flames blueline and Rittich in net.
Jon D: The first line scores, the second line shuts down the top line for the Jets, and the bottom six doesn’t get killed. It sounds harsh at the end, but the Flames don’t need guys like Bennett and Lucic to be spectacular, they just need them to be… better than James Neal last year. Play defence, wear down the Jets’ blueline, and win the minutes against the third and fourth lines from the Jets.
John M: The Flames will win the series if they can finally get consistent depth scoring, solid defending from their bottom pair, and can somehow solve Connor Hellebuyck. If the Flames can figure out what their bottom six will look like early and stick with it, then maybe they can finally get some consistent scoring.
Without it, the team will be relying too much on the top line, again, and will have a limited attack. The team also needs a combination of Erik Gustafsson, Derek Forbort, and Oliver Kylington to step up and take the load off the top four as the series goes on.
Finally, there is no doubt the Jets have the edge in net and if the team can find a way to absolutely pepper Hellebuyck early and often then perhaps they can throw him off his game. Goaltending wins series in the playoffs, and if the Flames can find a way to win that battle – they will win the series.
Khalid: There are two keys to victory for the Flames. First, they need to find a way to beat Connor Hellebuyck. There is no way the Flames win this series if they cannot consistently beat him. The Jets give up the most high-danger chances against in the league (yes that even includes Detroit), but Hellebuyck has been absolutely lights out this season. They need to be able to put a ton of high quality chances on net if they have a chance of winning.
Second, the Flames need to play like they belong there. The biggest complaint about the team in the playoffs last year was that they seemed to cower to the Avalanche. They did not look like they believed in themselves, and crumpled under any adversity. If the Flames are going to have a shot to win this series (or any series going forward), they need to believe in themselves. They need to believe that they deserve to be in the playoffs, and believe that they can win it all. “Believe you can and you’re halfway there” – Theodore Roosevelt
Bill: The most important factor is flustering the Jets’ defence. Most of the Jets’ regular players were well underwater for expected goal rates, and much talk throughout the pause has revolved around how the Jets would not be in the playoffs if it weren’t for Hellebuyck.
The Flames have the speed and they have the skill necessary to really make it hard for the Jets. If they can roll four lines and get through the less-than-stellar Jets defence, then the road to victory will basically reveal itself with all but a single Vezina-calibre goalie at the very end. Relentlessly pepper Hellebuyck with quality shots and eventually he will be solved.
Which Jets player should the Flames worry about the most?
Karim: Connor Hellebuyck. All things considered, if Hellebuyck is at his peak, the Flames will be hard pressed to win the series. A five-gamer is really short and if Hellebuyck can steal a win or two, the Flames have their work cut out for them.
Jon D: I think its all about Scheifele and Connor. If there is a more quiet goal scorer in the league than Connor, I cant think of him. I think Scheifele will rightly be the focus of the Flames checking line, but his winger Connor can bury it with the best of them. It will be a lot of fun to watch the Backlund line take this matchup if that is what coach Ward chooses. They were physically overmatched by Nathan MacKinnon last year, but should be able to cause problems for the Jets first unit.
John M: Hellebuyck is obviously the biggest concern, but the team also needs to stymie Blake Wheeler. I have been of the mindset that Wheeler is one of the more underrated players in the league. In terms of his defence, playmaking abilities, and truculence (that one’s for you Burkie), he is a serious difference maker and should get a bit more focus than some of the other Jets forwards.
Khalid: Aside from Hellebuyck (because we have talked at length about him), I think this will be the playoffs that Patrik Laine will be looking to breakout. After signing his bridge deal at the beginning of the season, he will be looking to prove that he can be a gamebreaker for the Jets.
While his time in Winnipeg has been quite good, he has not established himself as the guy there. This may be the playoffs that he really tries to stand out. On top of that, he plays on the second line, and with 3M likely matching up against the Scheifele line, the Monahan line will have their hands full with a strong Laine. Expect him to be a driving force for the Jets this playoffs, and one the Flames will need to work hard to contain.
Bill: The consensus is clear, Hellebuyck can singlehandedly win the series for the Jets. However, there are some dangerous players up front that can make quick work of the Flames’ goaltenders if the Flames don’t take them seriously. The name that stands out the most is Connor. Since becoming a full-time NHL player, he’s put up 30-goal seasons and posted a career-best 38 goals before the season was paused.
Shutting down the Jets’ best scorer will be a top priority for the Flames, and Connor definitely the player the Flames need to focus on. If the Flames’ defence can effectively shut down the Jets’ offence, then they will be afforded the time to figure out their own offence too. But if Connor can’t be contained, then the Flames might not get a chance to make up for it, much like last seasons’ early exit.
What do you think about these questions? Let us know in the comments or on Twitter @wincolumnblog.
Photo by Dave Sandford/NHLI via Getty Images