Should the NHL’s Return to Play Committee receive approval from the teams and players on a conference seeding system that will pit the eighth-ranked Flames against the ninth-ranked Jets (based on winning percentage), the rematch would provide a radically different backdrop.
There would be no one in the stands, the stadium beer taps would be turned off and the only thing hitting the ice will be two teams desperately hoping to shake off rust in time for a five-game series to determine who gets to face the defending Stanley Cup champion St. Louis Blues.
Thanks to COVID-19, plenty has changed since the two Canadian teams met at Regina’s Mosaic Stadium in October for one of the most picturesque outdoor games in NHL lore.
What hasn’t changed is the pressure for both clubs to turn expectations into playoff success, which is what both would attempt to kickstart with a play-in series that would once again provide neither team with home-ice advantage.
Tentatively destined for a to-be-determined hub city sometime this summer, the latest recommendation on a 24-team conference playoff format, according to Elliotte Friedman, would feature play-in showdowns for teams ranked fifth through 12th.
The top four seeds (St. Louis, Colorado, Vegas and Dallas in the west) would receive a bye.
Edging out the Jets by a mere percentage point (.564 vs .563), the Flames’ opening opponent is a toughie, while Edmonton would face a relative patsy in Chicago, Vancouver would face Minnesota and Nashville would get Arizona.
The good news for the Flames is these Jets aren’t the rough and tumble bruisers who battled to the conference final two years ago.
However, they possess a potent five-pack of snipers up front, and a world class goalie who did well this year to mask defensive lapses while the club’s rebuilt blue line found its footing.
Connor Hellebuyck has demonstrated he can be one of the game’s elite netminders, which was evident all season long, as the imposing 27-year-old was among league leaders with a 2.57 goals against average and .922 save percentage.
Based on his play the last few months before the league was paused, the Flames likely playoff starter would be Cam Talbot, whose numbers are surprisingly similar (2.63 GAA, .919 SV).
Their head-to-head matchup over the past four years demonstrates that the Flames have a slight edge with a 5-3-2 record, in which they’ve outscored the Jets, 29-18.
In those ten games, Johnny Gaudreau had a team-high five goals and seven assists, followed by Sean Monahan, who had a goal and seven helpers.
The usual suspects led the Jets in scoring against the Flames, with Mark Scheifele and Blake Wheeler both scoring a pair of goals and adding three assists, while Patrik Laine had three goals and a helper.
The lone meeting this year saw the two teams exchange power play goals before Bryan Little ended the memorable evening with a goal midway through overtime to put both teams right around .500 a dozen games into the season.
Two of the Flames’ final dozen regular season games were slated to be home dates against the Jets, who did well to piece together a 37-28-6 record despite a revamped blue line that lost the likes of Dustin Byfuglien, Jacob Trouba, Tyler Myers and Ben Chiarot after last season’s first-round playoff exit.
The Jets’ back end still represents the biggest collection of question marks for a squad that is backstopped by Vezina-calibre goaltending and powered by a speedy, skilled group of high-end scorers up front.
The acquisition of Dylan DeMelo at the trade deadline stabilized the top pairing with Josh Morrissey, slotting Tucker Poolman into a third pairing role where he’ll likely share time with Luca Sbisa and Nathan Beaulieu. Neal Pionk has stepped up offensively in a second pairing role alongside Dmitri Kulikov.
A weak spot to be sure.
Up front, the Jets have a murderers’ row of snipers spearheaded by Scheifele, Wheeler, Laine, Kyle Connor and Nikolaj Ehlers.
Adam Lowry provides plenty of moxie in the bottom six, which may or may not include Little, whose second concussion this year previously listed him as out for the remainder of the season.
Their matchup against Milan Lucic and his merry bunch of young muckers would certainly provide plenty of entertainment.
Officials are quick to point out the format is still very much up in the air right now, as are the parameters dictated by health officials on both sides of the border. The border is still closed for at least the next month, making it problematic to envision how more than 100 players in Europe will be able to return and go through their 14-day quarantine anytime soon.
None of this might be possible to squeeze in before December, as is the league’s ambitious goal.
However, as the potential playoff picture becomes a tiny bit clearer, starved hockey fans can at least start to sink their teeth into who the team, and its backers, will likely be taking aim at.
In Calgary’s case, that rival may be just two provinces away, against a team the Flames haven’t faced in the post-season since 1987, when Daniel Berthiaume, Dale Hawerchuk, Thomas Steen and Paul MacLean authored a six-game upset.