CALGARY — There are plenty of people who see this matchup of eighth- and ninth-ranked teams as the most intriguing of all the qualifying round series.
Even in their one meeting this year, played outdoors in Mosaic Stadium’s snow globe, things were so evenly matched it took overtime to settle it.
The Flames insist they’re entering the series motivated by a chance to redeem themselves following last year’s embarrassing first round exit against Colorado.
The Jets also lost in the first round last year, albeit to the eventual champions, which was a hard pill to swallow after going to the conference final a year earlier.
(5-on-5 via Natural Stat Trick)
Flames: 50.25 CF% (15th), 47.67 GF% (24th), 91.89 SV% (15th), 7.64 SH% (23rd), 0.995 PDO (23rd)
Jets: 48.55 CF% (21st), 49.29 GF% (21st), 92.42 SV% (9th), 8.05 SH% (18th), 1.005 PDO (12th)
Calgary: 21.2 PP% (11th), 82.1 PK% (8th), 204 GF (20th), 214 GA (16th)
Winnipeg: 20.5 PP% (15th), 77.6 PK% (22nd), 213 GF (16th), 201 GA (12th)
It’s generally agreed upon the Jets have stronger and more proven netminding, the Flames have a deeper, more potent blue line, and the top five forwards on both sides are deadly.
Both “middle-aged” clubs have character depth players who add size and moxie to a series that should be as close on the ice as it is on paper.
Calgary’s second line of Mikael Backlund, Matthew Tkachuk and Andrew Mangiapane will undoubtedly be matched against Winnipeg’s top trio of Mark Scheifele, Blake Wheeler and Kyle Connor, with an eye on limiting their offence and causing them fits.
While the Flames’ starting netminder, be it playoff rookie David Rittich or veteran Cam Talbot, will have tons of pressure to try matching Connor Hellebuyck, the spotlight in this series is on Calgary’s top line.
Last year Johnny Gaudreau, Sean Monahan and Elias Lindholm were no-shows in a five-game loss to Colorado that saw them combine for just two goals. Two years earlier Gaudreau and Monahan were also held at bay in a four-game sweep by Anaheim.
If the Jets are able to neutralize Calgary’s biggest guns, the belief is this will be a short series and the off-season will revolve around endless chatter of needing to shake things up at the Dome.
Scheifele, Wheeler and Connor make up one of the most potent lines in hockey and will be one of two units likely to go head-to-head with Monahan’s line.
The other is Adam Lowry’s checking unit with Jack Roslovic and Andrew Copp.
Josh Morrissey and Dylan DeMelo will see the bulk of the ice against Calgary’s top threats, headlining a revamped blue line that will be motivated to prove doubters wrong.
The Jets certainly feel they can contend again given their firepower and goaltending.
Calgary’s X-Factor: The goaltending
Both Talbot and Rittich are capable of going on runs that see them hang with any netminder in the league. Who the team starts and how they stack up against the Vezina Trophy finalist at the other end will have a big say in who wins this matchup.
Winnipeg’s X-Factor: Nikolaj Ehlers
The perennial 20-goal man has taken plenty of heat for being unable to score in 21 playoff games, adding just seven helpers. He and Patrik Laine will be counted on heavily for offence on the second line with Cody Eakin.
The biggest question facing Calgary is: Can the top line rise to the occasion?
Gaudreau and Monahan have been part of post-season pratfalls that have seen the Flames lose 10 of their last 11 playoff games. Now, they must play effectively when the intensity and stakes rise. This may be their last chance together to prove they can be big-game players in Calgary.
The biggest question facing Winnipeg is: Can Hellebuyck return to his Vezina-like form?
Hellebuyck is 2-8 in his last 10 playoff starts, which is in stark contrast to the last three regular seasons he’s put up as the NHL’s second-most winningest netminder.