The final month of the regular season was like musical chairs for the Pacific Division. The only team that did not move in the standings was the Los Angeles Kings, and it was anybody’s guess at where the top four teams of the division would be placed in the playoff format. Despite a 10-game winning streak that shot them as high as second, the Calgary Flames could not keep pace with the top three teams, and they have settled for the first wild card spot.
In their quest to end their 28-year Stanley Cup drought, Calgary will take on the Anaheim Ducks, the Pacific Division champions for the fifth straight year, in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
This is the second time the Flames have reached the postseason in eight years, with the other time coming in 2015. That postseason run ended with a 4-1 series loss to the same Ducks. The Flames would like nothing more than to avenge that loss, but the Ducks had even bigger thoughts during that series.
Despite countless chances at adding to their 2007 Stanley Cup Championship, Anaheim just could not win a Game 7. In 2015, they lost at home to Chicago after eliminating Calgary. After losing Game 7 in the first round last season, the Ducks made some changes.
The Ducks continued to have their way against the Flames this season. They won the season series 4-1, with their only loss coming on an 8-3 drubbing at the Saddledome on Dec. 4. Johnny Gaudreau returned from a broken finger that came in Minnesota on Nov. 15, and he scored the first goal of the game. Eight different players scored for the Flames in the win, including fourth liners Alex Chiasson and Matt Stajan, as well as third liner Sam Bennett. All three of them also led the team with two assists.
The Flames went on to lose their most recent home-and-home series to Anaheim in April. While they had already locked up a playoff spot, it effectively hurt their seeding. They will need to do their homework, and maybe find some magic that they had on Dec. 4, in order to snag four wins from Anaheim.
Is Randy Carlyle new? Well, he did replace Bruce Boudreau after last season, but he was also the bench boss when the Ducks won the Stanley Cup in 2007. For a team that may need another Game 7 to win the Stanley Cup, it does not hurt to bring back a proven winner.
Glen Gulutzan, on the other hand, has a distinct disadvantage on the coaching side. He was hired as the new head coach for Calgary after Bob Hartley was fired last season. This will be the first time he has ever coached in an NHL playoff series after two failed seasons in Dallas back in 2011-2013. Can “David” defeat “Goliath” again?
The scoring honchos
The Ducks clearly have more experience in the playoffs, and that does not just include the franchise, either. Corey Perry and Ryan Getzlaf have been the constants of Anaheim’s playoff streak, and while neither player scored 20 goals this season, they remained productive members of the team. Getzlaf leads the team with 58 assists and 73 points and is no stranger to assisting in bunches. While Perry took a nosedive in goals this season, he is not far removed from scoring 10 times in the 2015 postseason. He had 15 points in Anaheim Stanley Cup run, and the Flames would be silly to ignore him.
Ryan Kesler is also familiar with the playoffs. He was one of the most dangerous scorers during Vancouver’s Stanley Cup Finals visit in 2011, with 41 goals in the regular season and seven in the postseason. He has not missed a beat since being traded to the Ducks in 2014, and he has scored 20 goals in nine straight non-lockout seasons.
Rickard Rakell might be Calgary’s biggest concern. He has been in the league for five years, but his scoring has shot up in the past two seasons. He has gone from nine to 20, and he had a team-high 33 goals in 2016-2017, and his 18.6 shooting percentage is sixth in the NHL for players with at least 41 games played.
Calgary has relied on a more balanced attack. Gaudreau has been a hitting target for much of the season (just ask Toronto), and that hurt his scoring after 30 goals last year. He managed to chip in with 43 assists, tops for the Flames, and recovered his season quite nicely. Sean Monahan was able to pick up the slack after November and led the team with 27 goals.
The dangerous line, however, is the 3M line. Mikael Backlund led the team in points until late in the season, but each player on his line, which also included rookie Matthew Tkachuk and Michael Frolik, put up more than 40 points this season. Tkachuk is also not afraid to drop the gloves, so expect a tangling or two with enforcers like Jared Boll.
Bennett also a strong track from his first postseason appearance, and the fourth overall pick from 2014 is primed for another huge series.
Mark Giordano, Dougie Hamilton, Michael Stone, and TJ Brodie are all big defenders who can contribute well on offense, while Cam Fowler is the only defenseman for Anaheim who had more than 20 points. The challenge for the Flames, however, will be beating all lines of defense. Replacing Frederik Andersen with Jonathan Bernier looked to be a step back for the goalie situation in Anaheim, but Bernier stepped up in a big way when John Gibson was injured for all but one game in March. He had a 94.1 save percentage, and that was a big reason why the Ducks stormed to the division title.
Gibson, who had six shutouts and a 2.22 GAA this season, is back and is going to begin the series as the starter, but either player looks to be a solid bottleneck. The Flames will need to attack them early and often to make them break.
Which Brian Elliott will we see in this series? Will it be the one who carried the St. Louis Blues to the Western Conference Finals last year and won 11 straight games in March, or the one who was beyond lost in October and November? That could be the deciding factor in the series.
Johnny Hockey and Mon-ey strike like lightning, Elliott finds that April magic, and Hamilton officially introduces himself to the hockey world as an elite defender. The Ducks, of course, will keep the games close, especially with Rakell and that bottleneck defense. Those Game 7’s, however, continue to bite the Ducks for the fifth straight season. Those SoCal fans will not be happy, and that is putting it lightly. Flames win in seven