The Calgary Flames didn’t need to see Connor Hellebuyck make 37 saves Wednesday night to know they’ll be in tough starting Saturday.
But seeing the 27-year-old Vezina finalist display mid-season form in his first game back sure reinforced just how tall a task the Flames are facing.
Six-feet, four-inches tall, to be exact.
It has been well-documented that Hellebuyck represents the biggest impediment between the Flames being able to redeem themselves after last year’s playoff pratfall.
Efficient, calm and positionally on point, Hellebuyck has won more games than any other NHL goalie except Andrei Vasilevskiy over the last three years.
Even with a rebuilt blue line in front of him, he managed to shine this season — and again Wednesday in 4-1 exhibition win over the Vancouver Canucks — prompting what will inevitably be one of the most important matchups in the series.
Hellebuyck vs. Tkachuk
No, not Hellebuyck against whoever starts for Calgary.
Hellebuyck versus Tkachuk, as in Matthew.
Has a nice ring to it.
We’ll likely see shortly after puck drop if the former is as furious with the latter as is every netminder in the Pacific Division.
“I’m sure it frustrates goalies having him in their face,” smiled Tkachuk’s linemate, Mikael Backlund.
“If he can get a little frustration in Hellebuyck’s mind it will help us for sure.”
Hellebuyck has certainly shown in the past he can show signs of frustration when jostled regularly.
Consider crease disruption mandatory if the Flames are to have success, meaning you can expect plenty of post-whistle scrums, not to mention audible instructions form the ref for Tkachuk (and Milan Lucic) to “stay out of the paint.”
One last note on Hellebuyck — his ability to keep the Jets in games includes creating plenty of offence from his steady supply of stops. The Jets led the league in even-strength goals off the rush, which is a stat the Flames are on the wrong side of by giving up more even-strength goals off the rush than anyone.
Big saves at the Jets end can quickly end up in the opposition’s net.
A few other observations from the Jets’ win over the Canucks in terms of what the Flames may have learned:
Pressure on Jets imperative
It didn’t take long for newcomer Neal Pionk to demonstrate why the Flames are being touted as having a much better blue line.
Pionk gave the puck away several times against the Canucks while trying to get out of his zone, highlighting a trend throughout the evening that saw some highly-questionable puck management in the Jets own end.
It’s the type of scenario tenacious forecheckers like Andrew Mangiapane and Sam Bennett could thrive in, creating chaos and plenty of chances for themselves and linemates off of Winnipeg mistakes.
Sure, it was the first game in over four months for the Jets, so we’ll cut them some slack.
You don’t need fancy stats to demonstrate the superior six at the back… but we’ll remind everyone the Jets finished dead last in the NHL this season in offence from defencemen.
They can be exploited.
Many believe this series will come down to which top line can be more successful.
It’s a scary proposition for the Flames given the recent history of both teams’ playoff performances.
Johnny Gaudreau and Sean Monahan are hoping to bounce back from consecutive playoff no-shows, while Mark Scheifele is just two years removed from one of the most prolific playoffs in recent NHL lore with 14 goals in 17 games. It included an NHL record 11 road goals.
All told, the 27-year-old star has 26 points in 27 playoff games.
Scheifele, Wheeler and Kyle Connor looked steady against the Canucks and will get a healthy diet of Tkachuk, Mangiapane and Backlund, with an eye on disrupting and limiting the sizable stars.
Gaudreau, Monahan and Elias Lindholm – the lone goal scorer in the Flames’ 4-1 loss to the Edmonton Oilers on Tuesday – should see lots of Andrew Copp, Adam Lowry and uber-skilled Jack Roslovic.
Jumbo Jets no more
These aren’t the same big, burly Jets that got to the conference final two years ago, or that gave the St. Louis Blues a good battle in six games last year.
The loss of blue-line bruisers Dustin Byfuglien, Jacob Trouba and Tyler Myers last summer has turned the Jets into more of a hybrid team of skill, speed and size – just like the Flames.
Don’t expect the Jets to be bowling over the Flames as they would have in the past.
Third-liner Lowry is the Jets’ answer to Lucic in a much more evenly matched physical battle than most Flames fans likely realize.
Given how much heat the Flames have taken the last few years for their lack of physicality, there’s a good chance they could actually out-hit the Jets nightly.