March 17 2009 11:57AM
With 13 games left in the stretch drive, it's about time to start sizing up the Flames potentional first round opponents, yes? Some folks in town are anxiously eying the NW Div standings after the 3-4 road trip, but the truth of the matter is the Flames will likely finish first in the NW and are pretty much guaranteed to make the play-offs either way. So without further ado - the sizing up!
First of all, the standings. If the post season were to start today, the Flames would be facing CBJ in the first round. Might as well start with them.
Good coach, good goaltending, emerging superstar (Rick Nash), decent forward depth, strong at ES.
Depthless blueline, relatively young line-up, poor special teams.
Columbus is amongst the clubs I'd prefer to avoid in the first round. They are, very quietly, one of the stronger bubble teams and are a decent bet to upset whoever they face in the first round. They added a strong goaltender after their first quarter struggles, have some emerging young talent, a smart, focused personality behind the bench and are capable of playing with anyone at ES. Does that sound familiar to anyone? '04 Flames?
That said, the BJs still have some warts. Their back-end is unspectacular, lacking a genuine star or power play quarterback. Their special teams are either mediocre (Pk - 15th) or terrible (PP - 30th) and they only have a handful of guys that have made the dance before.
If the Canucks fail in their bid to usurp Calgary, there's a small chance they could fall to 6th in the standings, setting up for first round rematch for the two rivals.
Strong forward and defensive depth, good goaltending.
Mediocre special teams, exploitable bottom 6
Vancouver is easily the strongest club beneath the Flames in the standings. They have two genuine scoring lines now that Sundin is back on his feet and Kesler and Burrows have emerged as threats. They have Roberto Luongo in net and a system designed to limit shots and chances against. Their back-end is no slouch either, boasting the likes of Mitchell, Ohlund, Salo and Alex Edler.
The Canucks GD of +17 is currently superior to Calgary's (+15). They've also been one of the hottest teams in the NHL since the trade deadline.
On the other hand, Vancouver isn't great at outshooting their opponents at ES and their special teams are barely average (16th and 20th for PP and PK). They also have a suspect group of bottom six forwards including Kyle Wellwood, Steve Bernier, Taylor Pyatt, Darcy Hordichuk and Ryan Johnson. At first, those seem like decent names to be populating the bottom end of the roster, but they aren't - all these guys tend to get beat up at ES in terms of outshooting and they all score at average or below average rates (Bernier is the higest at 1.76 ESP/60 and he spent a generous amount of time with the Sedins to start the year).
Vancouver is still capale of making life miserable for whoever they play in the post-season. This is another team I'd prefer to avoid in the first round.
I wrote them off around the trade deadline, but the Preds have put together a very strong couple of weeks and are still, incredibly, in the play-off picture. Once a nemesis of the Flames a few years back, that spell has mercifully been broken.
Good goaltending, strong back-end, excellent PK.
Poor forward depth, terrible PP, poor on offense in general.
Nashville is amazing at rotating starting goaltenders and producing quality outcomes. Two years ago, they dealt Tomas Vokoun after Chris Mason ended up leading the league in ES SV%. The next season, Mason fell before former ECHL goalie Dan Ellis, who also ended up a league leader in SV% at the end of the year. This season, Ellis has given way to rookie Pekka Rinne who only recently grabbed the starting reins for good. The freshman isn't quite leading the league in SV%, but he's up there with a .922 average through 40 games and is probably one of the main reasons the Predators have been able to stay in the play-off hunt. A lot of that has to do with his mind-boggling SH SV% of 0.94 which - Im sorry NSH fans - is ridiculously high and probably unsustainable. That's likely also the reason their PK is third in the league currently.
Besides a stable of really strong, young players on the blueline (Weber, Suter, Hamhuis, Zanon), Nashville isn't very scary otherwise. None of their forwards are great at ES and the depth behind Sullivan, Arnott and Dumont is sorely lacking. NSH has scored the least amount of goals of any team in play-off position (175) and their GD is -13.
While they still tend to trip up the Flames, Dallas isn't that great of a club anymore. They have especially struggled with goaltending and injury issues all year.
Good coaching, don't surrender a lot of shots on net
Poor goaltending, beset by injuries (Zubov, Richards, Morrow, Petersen), poor special teams
Dallas would probably be scarier if Zubov, Richards and Morrow weren't down for the count - but they are, so they aren't, if you catch my drift. Ony three players on the Stars score above a 2 ESP/60 rate, and two of them are Steve Ott (!) and Loui Eriksson (who is benefiting from a league high SH% of 21.5). Marty Turco has been abysmal this season (.889 SV%) and has only kept his starting job because Dallas dealt Mike Smith to Tampa Bay (and Tobias Stephen is also awful). Both their PP and PK are in the bottom 3rd of the league and their GD is -12.
Dallas would be a decent match-up for the Flames in the first round. In fact, I'm surprised they're in the running for a play-off spot at all.
Ales Hemsky, Sheldon Souray and, Uhhhhhmmmm....MacTavish's pithy wit?
Poor special teams, poor at ES, young line-up, poor forward depth.
I consider EDM to be the weakest of the bubble clubs and that's not just blind partisan bias talking. They routinely get outplayed at ES and only one of their regular skaters scores with any sort of frequency at 5on5 (Guess who?). Their PP is 23rd in the league and their PK is 29th. According to Hockey Numbers, they have the 25th ranked ES expected GD, based on the number and quality of shots they generate and give-up. Their actual GD is -18: worse than a number of clubs below them in the standings including the Blues (-10), Wild (+5) and Ducks (-11).
The Oilers would be the ideal match-up, not only because they suck but because a Battle of Alberta in the play-offs would be insanely entertaining. Sadly, there's not much chance of it happening - EDM would have to leap frog DAL, NSH and CBJ in order to grab the 6th seed and that brings to mind a certain snowballs chance in a certain firey afterlife. Were I to bet, I'd put my money on the Oil sliding further in the standings rather than moving up, in fact.