It took all 82 games played by the Nashville Predators and Dallas Stars to determine the Western Conference’s wild card seeding, and as such, the Colorado Avalanche and Calgary Flames had to sit tight to find out who they’d face in the first round.
It looked like it was going to be the Avalanche versus the Stars and the Flames versus the Predators, but Nashville blew a four-goal lead to lose 5–4 in regulation, which allowed the Stars to get ahead, switching the opponents around.
Now that we know the Flames and Stars will meet in a 2020 playoffs rematch, we wanted to know what will be the biggest difference maker in this series. We asked, you answered.
Flames versus Stars
These two teams weren’t particularly similar in 2021–22. Calgary finished the season with a 50–21–11 record, picking up 44 regulation wins (behind only Colorado’s 46 in the Western Conference). The Stars on the other hand, were being chased by the Vegas Golden Knights and didn’t secure a playoff spot until the final week of the season. They finished 46–30–6, with only 31 regulation wins—the lowest total of any playoff team this year.
How do these two teams stack up against each other? Well to put it simply, the Flames will be heavy favourites in pretty much every aspect. However, this is the NHL after all, and anything can happen. Nothing is certain until the final buzzer goes.
To assess what could be the difference maker, rather than looking at specific players, we broke it into their systems to get more holistic team comparisons, which in the case of this poll includes offence, defence, goaltending, and special teams.
It was a fairly close poll for all four factors, but the votes came through and the order of the poll coincidentally matched the order of importance as voted by fans. Let’s further look at how the teams compare. All comparisons will be made using visualisations from HockeyViz.com.
To assess team offence, we’ll look at the offence generated at 5v5 as well as finishing at all situations.
Flames 5v5 offence
Throughout the season, the Flames started as a surprise team that was able to generate a lot more offence than expected. Then they sustained that for all 82 games and became one of the highest-scoring teams in the league. A huge factor for them was their 5v5 play and being dominant at even strength.
In just under 4,000 minutes played at 5v5, the Flames put up an expected goals for rate of 3.01 goals per sixty minutes, good for a +15% differential compared to the league average. More of their shots come from right in front of the net, making them one of the effective teams in the league.
Even so, there is no area where they are particularly devoid of shots. If it’s in the offensive zone, be prepared for the Flames to shoot. With a lot of shots coming in the slot and from the left point as well, there is no shortage of offence generation for the Flames.
This style of play should bode well for them regardless of opponent, as they effectively funnel the puck to high-danger areas before they shoot.
Flames all situations finishing
At all situations, the Flames are effective at scoring in the slot. While their results right in front of the net aren’t always goals, the strong scoring presence in the slot is a big reason why they ended up scoring as many goals as they did this year.
Their difference in goals scored and expected goals scored isn’t that significant either, albeit their actual goals are lower. This does suggest that they could potentially score even more if luck is on their side, but there’s little cause for concern given the difference is so small.
Stars 5v5 offence
The Stars are quite an average team in the offensive zone. While they are able get a good amount of offensive in the slot in front of the net, they are mediocre virtually everywhere else. It’s exactly what you’d expect out of a bubble team when looking at a team result like this. They have players that can definitely score, but on aggregate, they’re as average as can be. With just 2.63 expected goals per 60 minutes of 5v5, they see a 1% boost compared to the league average.
If the Flames can shut down the Stars’ limited offence, that might be the series right there.
Stars all situations finishing
The Stars on aggregate have been snakebitten for much of the season. They don’t generate as many expected goals, and score on far fewer. There’s a smidgen of effective scoring to the right of the net, but it’s almost negligible compared to the rest of their offensive zone results.
Not a team that is often able to convert chances to goals, they will need a hot scoring hand from several players to overcome their deficiencies over the course of a series.
Team defence will be explored at 5v5, similar to team offence above.
Flames 5v5 defence
Darryl Sutter is a checking-first coach. He always pushes a team to be strong on possession, and that in turn makes it very difficult for opponents to get offence going for themselves. What makes the Flames particularly good at defence is how they basically turn the area in front of their net into a black hole.
There isn’t much given up on average by the Flames, as they are strong at suppressing shots and their checking makes it wildly difficult to penetrate their defence. Again looking at rates, their expected goals against per 60 minutes is a low 2.35, 10% lower than the league average.
Combining both offence and defence, the Flames’ are a powerhouse team at 5v5 and have few weaknesses at even strength.
Stars 5v5 defence
By and large, the Stars aren’t a bad defensive team. They are once again average, but they do have some areas of play that are good. The can limit shots coming from the slot, which should be among every team’s top priority.
However, they are a bit leaky, and the specks of red throughout the defensive zone suggest there are many areas that their opponents shoot from. What they do have going for them is that on average, they allow just 2.52 expected goals per 60 minutes, which makes them better at defence than the average team.
While the Flames have a strong results on both ends of the ice, the Stars look mightily average and will have to overcome a lot of deficiencies to get through the Flames.
Goaltending, like finishing, is taken at all situations as well.
The Flames’ goaltending tandem of Jacob Markstrom and Daniel Vladar have been formidable backstops for a contending team. While the brunt of the work has been on Markstrom’s shoulders, he’s done a spectacular job saving pucks game in and game out. Vladar has been a reliable backstop to boot and there’s little to complain about his game as well.
Their goaltending is able to save more pucks than expected, and are especially good at limiting what goes into the net when shots are taken from in close. There’s a ring of red that’s a bit further away from the crease and this will be an are the Stars should look to exploit.
The Stars have had mixed results with their goaltending. Games were split between Jake Oettinger and Braden Holtby—Oettinger became the full-time starter after Holtby was injured.
As a whole, there’s a lot of noise in the Stars’ saving plot, where there’s no real discernible area that should be heavily targeted. If anything, the area directly to the right of the net (goaltender’s perspective) could be an exploitable weakness. We’ll see if more shots are taken tending high above Oettinger’s blocker or not.
The Stars have very much a similar problem with their saving as they do elsewhere on the ice. They are pretty average across the whole surface. They’ve ceded nearly as many goals as are expected, which suggests goaltending hasn’t been as strong for the team. Average results won’t get them far in the playoffs so they’ll have to hope for a lights out performance between the pipes.
Turning to the power play and penalty kill, let’s see if special teams can further reveal anything.
Flames power play and penalty kill
We know the Flames’ power play is fairly good at generating shots—especially with the top unit on the ice. They’re one of the better power plays in the league, and they’re clearly able to shoot at will.
They have options that can score on either unit, but all eyes will be on the top one as it boasts three 40-goal scorers. No team will really want to deal with that potent offence with scoring threats in all positions.
Their power play creates 8.44 expected goals per 60 minutes, which puts them at 17% above league average.
Turning to their penalty kill, they once again have one of the best kills in the league and are quite effective at shot suppression. Their top penalty killers are good at getting into lanes and preventing shots from making it to the net. A vast majority of unblocked shots come from afar rather than in the high-danger areas.
They cede just 5.75 expected goals per 60 minutes, which is a whopping 20% lower than the league average.
Stars power play and penalty kill
This is where it gets interesting. If the Stars have one thing going for them, it’s their power play. If the Flames are called for many infractions, this could be where the Stars take advantage. They have a fairly good power play that can get into the high-danger areas to score.
With 8.03 expected goals per 60 minutes, they are well above-average in this regard, being 11% above the mark.
When given multiple power play opportunities in a game, the Stars’ man-advantage is a real threat that can score.
The Stars also have a strong penalty kill as well. They also prevent shots from being taken in high-danger areas and are able to spread shots against over the ice. While the two faceoff circles have plenty of shots taken, it’s relatively far enough to be less dangerous.
They clock in at 6.42 expected goals against, good for being 11% lower than league average.
The special teams play of both Dallas and Calgary might actually be the difference maker that no one paid much attention to between the teams.
Ready for the rematch
Both the Flames and Stars have very different teams compared to what they brought into the playoff bubble two years ago. While the Stars handled the Flames and went all the way to the Stanley Cup, they don’t look quite as strong either on paper nor on the ice. Getting into the playoffs this year was effectively a bonus for them.
The inverse is true for Calgary. They have been one of the best teams in the league with their on-ice results, and as such, expectations for this team are quite high. They will need to escape the first round and start putting some playoff demons to rest.
Looking across all the different aspects of play, it’s pretty much confirmed that the Flames are strong favourites while the Stars are heavy underdogs. However, it might just be that a close special teams battle can make this series quite interesting.
If the Flames keep the series at even strength, they should in theory be able to handle the Stars much more readily this time around.
What do you think will be the biggest difference maker in the first round? Let us know in the comments below or on Twitter @wincolumnCGY.
Photo by Brett Holmes/Icon Sportswire