The Calgary Flames begin their Western Conference quarter-final series with the Vancouver Canucks tomorrow night at Rogers Arena in Vancouver. The two teams a pretty evenly matched, and the Canucks are slight favourites at the odds-makers.
After 82 games of craziness, though, I think the Flames will win the series (in seven games).
Here are five reasons why I think it’ll happen.
THEY HAVE A TOP LINE NOW
The tandem of Johnny Gaudreau, Jiri Hudler and Sean Monahan – nick-named “Boys and the Hud” by fans – has emerged as the straw that stirs the drink in Calgary this season. The trio has combined for 86 of Calgary’s 237 goals (and 61 of their 175 even-strength tallies). Depending what you compare, they have accounted between the three of them for 36.3% (or 34.8%) of their offense.
Congratulations, Calgary; after a decade of throwing bodies onto a line with Jarome Iginla and hoping it worked out, you finally have a top line (for the first time since the fabled MCI Line of McAmmond, Conroy and Iginla of 2001-02). That means you can rely on them to create offense and/or experiment with the remainder of your line-up to create offense to surprise and befuddle your opponents.
The Flames almost never take penalties. They were, by far, the team that had to kill the fewest penalties in the entire NHL, and they also drew a fair number of penalties by virtue of hustling and forcing opponents to take ’em. They gave their opponents 186 power-plays while generating 255 of their own, which is pretty massive in the regular season and in the jam-packed Western Conference, contributed to their playoff push.
For a team that’s not renowned as a great even-strength power, Calgary’s reliance on special teams may be even more pronounced. If they can stay as disciplined as they were in the regular season – even with Vancouver’s penalty kill prowess – it could be a big advantage for them.
EVERYBODY IS OVERACHIEVING
The big question heading into this season was “where are the goals going to come from?” This was particularly a concern with several established players – notably Mike Cammalleri – departing the organization in the off-season. The thought process was that maybe some of the rookies could contribute something, and maybe the existing veterans could step up, too.
The good news is this: everyone stepped up, and as a result, there’s offense from everywhere. There probably shouldn’t be; everyone has sky-high shooting percentages seemingly and everyone is having career years. The upside is that while everyone having these kinds of years all at once is unlikely and unforeseen, so is everybody’s offense falling off a cliff at the same time. So unless the laws of probability go ker-blooey, it’s unlikely that the Flames will completely forget how to score goals for seven games.
And really, when everyone from the blueline out is scoring goals inexplicably, it makes it tough for a coach to game-plan to hone in on any single one.
THEY’RE USED TO PLAYOFF HOCKEY
More than almost any other team – maybe Minnesota or Ottawa have had to be more clutch, but that’s it – Calgary has had to play playoff hockey to make it to the dance.
By virtue of their wonderous eight-game losing streak in mid-December, Calgary has had to play at a playoff clip to qualify for the playoffs. That means winning two of every three games by hook or crook. They have dealt with that reality for four months, which should mentally steel them for another two months. Or, to be more realistic, seven more games.
Now, you may have heard words like “Flames are bad at Corsi” and “unsustainable” over the course of this season. Well, the Flames are bad at Corsi – they’re by-far the worst possession team in the playoffs. But they’ve been a consistently bad possession team all season long. They’ve played a counter-punch style of hockey all season long. It’s nothing new to them. They won 45 games this season being bad at Corsi. They know what they are.
THERE’S NO PRESSURE
Let’s be honest here: nobody outside of the Calgary Flames organization – and TSN’s Aaron Ward – really gave Calgary a chance to be in the playoffs. The Flames have no long-time captains to win for, no legends to push them to victory. During Calgary’s “going for it!” era, you could understand why they felt they had to win now: Jarome Iginla and Miikka Kiprusoff were depreciating assets and it made sense to push to maximize them.
Vancouver? They’ve had two incredible talents there in the Sedin twins, and there’s a pretty decent chance that those guys will never win a Stanley Cup. That’s pretty depressing, and I don’t even really care about the Canucks that much. The window for the Sedins, and maybe the Canucks, is arguably closing.
In Calgary? You could argue that the window is just about to open. It’s a loose team, a young team that feels that their best years are still way in front of them. That could make them dangerous.