The Calgary Flames locked up first place in the Pacific Division a long time ago, but it took until Game 82 for their first round matchup to be decided. The Flames will take on the Dallas Stars in round one of the 2022 NHL playoffs, which kicks off tonight at the Saddledome.
The Flames and Stars have played three games head to head so far this season, with the Flames holding the edge in all of them. Over those three games, the Flames finished with a 2–0–1 record, with Dallas’ only win coming in 3-on-3 overtime—which doesn’t exist in the playoffs.
On paper, the Flames have the edge in essentially every category, and are the favourites to win the series by almost every single outlet and expert out there. Flames fans have been fooled before though, and until the team performs on the ice, the fanbase will always view them as underdogs.
As well, the Flames and Stars faced off against each other in 2020 in the bubble, which was the last time both teams were in the playoffs. The Stars won in six after the Flames collapsed in true Flames fashion, and they’ll no doubt have that in their minds when the puck drops tomorrow night.
Let’s break down the Stars’ game so far this season and what we can expect from them in the first round of the playoffs.
The Stars’ offence
This year was a changing of the guard, of sorts, in Dallas. The Stars’ top line of Jason Robertson, Roope Hintz, and Joe Pavelski brings offensive firepower like Dallas top lines have been known to provide in years past. This time though, it’s on the backs of two young guns and a grizzled veteran, rather than the usual suspects of Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn.
Pavelski has had an incredible season putting up 27 goals and 81 points. He set a career-high in points at the tender age of 37, and is no doubt itching to finally win it all. His season was propelled by high flying sophomore Robertson who has established himself as a bona fide superstar, amassing 41 goals and 79 points in 74 games this season. Hintz also set career-highs with 37 goals and 72 points.
It’s a pretty steep drop off from there. Benn and Seguin are still on the team and can turn it up every now and then, but it’s clear their best years are behind them and they are no longer the franchise players in Dallas. Denis Gurianov caused a lot of problems for Calgary in 2020 and still has one of the most lethal shots in the league, but hasn’t had a great year with just 11 goals and 31 points. Alexander Radulov is probably the biggest disappointment for the Stars this season though, currently slotted on the fourth line and with only four goals on the year.
The Stars’ power play has been decent this year, ranking 11th in the NHL and converting at a 22.4% clip. It’s really been the top line owning the majority of production on the man advantage though, and the Stars don’t really have any legit weapons on their second unit. It’s mostly a collection of fossils that were once the talk of the ton, but are now aging relics of the past (plus Gurianov and Miro Heiskanen).
On the back end, the Stars have three layers of offensive weapons, led mainly by John Klingberg, who is a pending UFA and almost certainly destined to play elsewhere next season; Heiskanen, who was tremendous in the bubble but whose strong suit is the defensive end of the ice; and Ryan Suter, whose shine has worn off after 37 years on planet Earth and 17 in the NHL.
The Stars are not as deep as the Flames and outside of their top line that put up 105 collective goals, really don’t have the firepower to match Calgary’s historic 40-40-40 line of Johnny Gaudreau, Matthew Tkachuk, and Elias Lindholm. They’ve been very impressive offensively this season and have significantly more threatening offensive weapons down the lineup as well.
Head-to-head, the Stars and Flames have the slight edge in goals (11–9), but it’s closer at 5v5 where the Flames hold a 7–6 edge. Fancy stats wise, the Flames have been the much better team in the season series. Here are Calgary’s total stats against Dallas from the season series courtesy of NaturalStatTrick.com.
The Flames lead in literally every category. An interesting one is unblocked shot attempts, otherwise known as Fenwick, where the Flames own a very impressive 57.6% share. This is known to be a good indicator of postseason success, and if the trend continues, the Flames have a clear edge.
The Stars’ defence
The defensive side of the game is not the Stars’ strong suit. The Flames pride themselves in limiting shots against, but the Stars do not. They are an underwater Corsi team this season, and have allowed the 14th most shot attempts this season. They really don’t make life too easy on their goalies in terms of total volume of shots faced.
They do limit high-danger chances though, allowing the 11th fewest HDCA this season overall at 5v5. Still, they only rank 13th in 5v5 goals allowed compared to the Flames who rank first, and 11th in xGA compared to the Flames’ ranking of fourth.
The most concerning part of the Stars’ defence is their penalty kill. They killed off only 79% of their penalties this season, good for just 19th in the NHL. Compared to the Flames’ mark of 83.2% ranking sixth, it’s quite the drop off.
On the blueline, the Stars do boast several excellent defenders, however. Led by the aforementioned Heiskanen, they will play the Flames’ top guns hard. Joining Heiskanen is Esa Lindell and Jani Hakanpaa, both big, physical defenders who know how to effectively defend the best players on opposing teams.
Overall though, the Flames hold the edge in defence by a substantial margin, and should have no trouble breaking through the Stars’ defence for quality scoring chances.
The Flames’ defence is stronger at limiting chances against, which compounds the edge for them over the Stars. They allow extremely few chances close to the net, and anything beyond that almost always requires traffic or redirections to find the back of the net. Pavelski is an excellent tipper, but he can’t do it on his own.
This is where the ice really tilts in the Flames’ favour. Jacob Markstrom is almost guaranteed to be a Vezina finalist this season and put forth one of the best campaigns from a Flames goalie in a very long time. He’s been tremendous at 5v5, solid on the penalty kill, and has given the team a chance to win every time he’s between the pipes. He’s also the no brainer number one goalie for the Flames.
The same cannot be said for the Stars. They’ve seen a rotating cast of goalies, first starting with Braden Holtby and Anton Khudobin, before finally landing on Jake Oettinger for the last half of the season.
Oettinger has been pretty solid for the Stars and is a big reason why the Stars made it back into the playoff picture, but his inexperience at the NHL level offers an even bigger edge to Markstrom. Here are comparisons between the two goaltenders from HockeyViz.com.
Markstrom has been the better goalie this season, period. He is a brick wall in tight, and really only gets beaten on redirections and screens. Oettinger is weak on his blocker side, something the Flames will surely look to exploit.
The edge goes to Calgary
It feels a little too easy this time around. The Flames have the edge on offence, defence, and goaltending, and come out ahead in all three areas by a fairly wide margin.
You never want to get ahead of yourself, we almost all did that in 2019, but this series should be a lock for the Flames. If they don’t come out on top, something will have had to go horribly wrong.
The puck drops tonight—let’s see if the Flames can start things off on the right foot.
Photo by Brett Holmes/Icon Sportswire