SAN JOSE – It’s not the kind of question NHL players are wired to answer aloud.
“Which team would you like to play in the first round?”
Fact is, the answer isn’t all that simple in Calgary, as two of the four possible first-round matchups are extremely favourable.
One of them is also the most likely: Colorado.
With a handful of games left in the NHL schedule, the Stars, the Wild, the Coyotes and the Avs are all possible opponents for the Pacific Division-leading Calgary Flames. The first two could pose problems for the Flames, the latter two, not so much.
Here’s a look at the probabilities and how each team would match up against a Flames squad that could wrap up the division crown Saturday night should San Jose lose to Vegas:
Flames’ record vs. Stars: 0-2-1
Goals for: 4
Goals against: 8
Results: Home, L 3-4 OT (Rittich); Away, L 0-2 (Rittich); Home, L 1-2 (Rittich)
This is clearly the team the Flames would most like to avoid.
Not only did the surging Stars sweep the Flames in their three-game series this year, Dallas has won six straight against a Flames club that can’t seem to put a lid on Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin.
Both have feasted on the Flames throughout their careers, posting more than a point a game against Calgary, which includes seeing both score game-winners in this season’s series.
As the league’s stingiest club, the Stars rolled through Calgary last week to stymie one of the NHL’s highest-scoring outfits en route to a 2-1 win.
Although the Flames threw 36 shots towards Ben Bishop (before he got injured) and Anton Khudobin, very few were high-danger chances. The Stars did well to keep the Flames to the perimeter, continually thwarting meek attempts to generate the offence Calgary has been known for all season.
By virtue of their recent three-game winning streak, the Stars hold a commanding six-point lead on Colorado for the first wild-card spot and are unlikely to drop.
The Flames outshot the Stars considerably in all three games, yet David Rittich took the loss every time.
Flames’ record vs. Avalanche: 3-0
Goals for: 14
Goals against: 10
Results: Away, W 3-2 OT (Rittich); Home, W 6-5 (Smith); Home, W 5-3 (Rittich)
Given its three-point lead on Arizona as the final wild-card team in the West, Colorado is the most likely opponent for the Flames starting April 10.
That would suit the Flames and their fans just fine.
The Flames may have compiled a perfect 3-0 record against the Avs this season, but all three contests were mighty battles with late outcomes.
The first game saw the Flames climb out of a 2-0 hole after the first period.
The second may have been the most exciting game of the season at the Dome, as Calgary was down 4-1 after two, only to storm back with one of its five-goal periods in the third.
That night’s 6-5 win came in the midst of a red-hot run by the Flames’ top trio of Johnny Gaudreau, Sean Monahan and Elias Lindholm. Yet, what was made crystal clear in that game was that the Avs’ top line of Nathan MacKinnon, Mikko Rantanen and Gabriel Landeskog was several notches better.
That line has been banged up lately, but Landeskog returned from injury Friday and Rantanen is expected back any day, setting up a delicious head-to-head matchup to be showcased on Hockey Night in Canada.
The Avs seem to have recently addressed their longstanding goaltending issues by replacing the inconsistent Semyon Varlamov with Phillip Grubauer, who has backstopped the squad into its late-season charge.
Flames’ record vs. Coyotes: 3-1
Goals for: 18
Goals against: 6
Results: Away, W 6-1 (Smith); Home, W 7-1 (Smith); Home, W 5-2 (Smith); Away, L 0-2 (Smith)
Another favourable matchup, and the second-most probable opponent for the Flames.
The Coyotes’ inability to find the net was evident in every game the Flames played against them this year, losing only in their most recent matchup in Glendale, when Rick Tocchet’s stifling defence shut out the Flames.
Arizona’s scoring woes continue to threaten its chances of meeting up with Calgary, which would be all but certain of starting Mike Smith against his old team. Smith made all four starts against the Coyotes this season, surrendering just six goals.
Flames’ record vs. Wild: 2-1
Goals for: 6
Goals against: 5
Results: Home, W 2-0 (Smith); Away, W 2-1 (Rittich); Home, L 2-4 (Smith)
Minnesota is certainly a longshot to make the playoffs, sitting four points back of Colorado with four games remaining.
Should they be able to shock the hockey world by leap-frogging Arizona and Colorado, there are two aspects of the Wild that pose significant threats to the Flames.
The first is Devan Dubnyk, a Calgary product who is capable of stealing games as one of the league’s biggest net-front obstacles.
The second is coach Bruce Boudreau, who has a long history of ensuring his teams inflict considerable pain – literally – on the Flames. Just like when he coached in Anaheim, Boudreau’s Wild pride themselves on targeting top Flames players with a physical brand of hockey aimed at wearing teams down.
Keep in mind, it was Minny’s Eric Staal who broke Gaudreau’s finger with a vicious slash two years ago that ultimately led to an NHL crackdown on such stickwork.
Sure, the Flames can easily beat Minnesota, but can they get through a series against them unscathed injury-wise?