CALGARY — Smoked in five games by the Colorado Avalanche after finishing first in the West last year, this Calgary Flames season was all about proving they could elevate their game when it mattered most.
The team struggled early but showed plenty of resilience in a season in which they overcame losing their coach to mount a second-half surge that still only barely had them in the playoff picture.
And now, a team notorious for slow starts will have to ensure they get hot quickly to beat a formidable Winnipeg Jets squad that has also struggled to live up to playoff expectations.
There’s pressure everywhere in a series some dub as the most intriguing and competitive of the play-in matchups.
Regular season record: 36-27-7 (8th in the West by points percentage)
Goals for: 210 (20th in NHL)
Goals against: 215 (T-15th in NHL)
Leading goal scorer: Elias Lindholm (29)
Leading point producer: Matthew Tkachuk (61)
Noah Hanifin: Left the Flames’ last game with an upper-body injury. No update was ever provided, but he is skating with the team informally and is expected to be fine.
Juuso Valimaki: Had ACL surgery 10 months ago and although he started skating before the NHL’s pause his official status is unclear. That said, the Flames have 10 competent NHL options on the blue line and there’s little belief they’d rush him back unless the team went on a deep run and was decimated at the back end. If he doesn’t play, the Flames can ensure their prized first-rounder isn’t eligible for the Seattle expansion draft – a significant factor.
Player To Watch
Johnny Gaudreau: All eyes will be on the diminutive playmaker who struggled to just one assist in last year’s playoff faceplant. Two years earlier he had just two assists in four playoff outings.
The most popular topic amongst Flames fans the last year-and-a-half has revolved around whether he’s the type of player you can win playoff hockey with as your leader. He certainly has the skill, but as the game gets heavier and tightens up fans want to know if he can adjust his game accordingly.
One interesting stat
Since Jan. 1, Cam Talbot is 9-3-1 with a 2.55 goals-against average and .923 save percentage.
It’s significant as it should do well to solidify him as the Flames’ starter over playoff greenhorn David Rittich for the play-in.
While many see the goaltending edge in the series going to Vezina trophy candidate Connor Hellebuyck, it’s interesting to note Talbot has similar numbers to Hellebuyck’s this season (aside from wins/losses) including that last two months when the Jetminder posted a 2.54 GAA and .922 save percentage. Yes, that said Jetminder.
Possible line combinations
Johnny Gaudreau – Sean Monahan – Elias Lindholm
Noah Hanifin – Travis Hamonic
Cam Talbot – David Rittich
The biggest question facing the team is…
Can the Flames atone for last year’s playoff flop and prove the core is playoff ready and worthy of being kept together?
Whether or not this team can rise to the occasion will help dictate how general manager Brad Treliving proceeds in the off-season.