19

FlamesNation Mailbag: Playoff preview

Well, isn’t that something. The Flames are division champs for the first time since 2005-06, and conference champs for the first time since 1989-90. For the next few games, we can kick back, watch the Stockton Heat take on the remainder of the schedule, and wait patiently for the playoffs to begin.

Today, we’re looking at playoff matchups and playoff lineups. Who will they face, and how will they face them?

Well since the conference is wrapped up, they’re certainly going to get him a few games, but waiting until the games have become meaningless kind of undermines the point of giving him a shot.

I think the Flames did the right thing by leaving Oliver Kylington on the sidelines to heal and not rush him back into action, but for him not to hit the ice once or twice since is a bit asinine to me. The Flames were hooped by being unable to send any defencemen to the AHL, but given that they were constrained by that, why not rotate him in once or twice? He’s not an amazing player just yet, but he isn’t actively hurting you by being in the lineup.

All of this is important because the Flames really should try to find out what he’s made of. Barring any offseason moves, the team probably won’t have space for all three of their defensive youngsters next year, so getting a head start on preseason 2019’s work is a good idea. Games in March are way more revealing and meaningful than games in September. To not give Kylington a shot means there’s less info to work with when the team actually needs to make a decision.

Unfortunately for Kylington, he will likely be watching the playoffs from the press box again. The team didn’t play him because they were risk averse and stuck with what was working during their recent bad stretches, and they probably won’t change that mentality heading into the playoffs.

Shutting down Nathan MacKinnon, Mikko Rantanen and Gabriel Landeskog is priority number one for the Flames. That line has been the reason Colorado has made the playoffs, and they’re absolutely dangerous when they’re on the ice. The 3M line is naturally the antidote, as they are against most of the big lines in the league. It is tried and true, as the 3M line shut down Landeskog-MacKinnon-Rantanen in their matchups this year, outscoring them 3-2 at 5v5 and holding them to 50% CF at 5v5.

But that doesn’t mean that this series is in the bag. What you should also look out for is the Flames’ top line, who have struggled to a worse extent against the Avalanche. The Purple Gatorade line was held to just 38% CF at 5v5 and outscored 3-0 against the Avs, with most of the damage being done by the Avalanche’s top line. Line matching is probably going to be the major battle in the potential Avs-Flames series.

The other thing you should watch for is the depth battles. With the Flames’ bottom six emerging as some of the best depth in the NHL, their job is going to be crucial.

I think James Neal is probably going to remain in the same spot he’s been all year: the third line. He’s been good post-injury, but he still hasn’t done that much to earn a top six shot. I think the belief that he will suddenly turn it on in the playoffs is optimistic, but should he flip that switch he could probably get top line billing, especially if the first line’s struggles pop up again in the postseason.

Who comes out may be Austin Czarnik, especially when Sam Bennett comes back, too. He’s gone quiet recently, and with none of that esteemed playoff experience, he’s an easy choice to come out. Peters has tried to get Bennett and Neal working together as linemates in the past before their injuries, so it’s likely he returns to that matchup. Andrew Mangiapane might be in danger too for similar reasons, but given how well he’s performing on the fourth line, I figure they leave him there.

Pairings are tough to say because you have to throw the playoff experience factor out the window. Noah Hanifin and Rasmus Andersson have no playoff experience, and neither do Kylingon or Juuso Valimaki. Other depth options Oscar Fantenberg, Michael Stone, and Dalton Prout have a combined 12 games between them.

The key factor is Andersson, who has been starting beside Mark Giordano the past two games. If that’s a combination that Bill Peters likes, it messes with the third pairing. With the exception of TJ Brodie on the top pairing, Peters goes lefty-righty, so the only righties remaining are Prout and Stone. They have played 29 combined games this season and eight combined postseason games. Peters may trust them, but that’s not exactly something I feel comfortable with heading into the playoffs.

If I had to choose, I would go with the conventional pairings with Fantenberg-Andersson on the third pairing. I said nice words about Kylington above, but I also acquiesce that Fantenberg-Andersson has been a steadier pairing than Kylington-Andersson. Kylington can provide some depth offence, but Fantenberg is the safer option and that’s probably better for the grind of playoff hockey.

I did some digging and found one website that keeps track of that. Per their data, the Flames aren’t the best team for scoring goals with their net empty, with only four extra skater goals. That’s about middle of the pack, tied with four other teams for 12th in the league. That number is a bit deflated due to the fact that the Flames are often winning their games in the late stages of play, but that’s just a testament to how well the team is in the other 58 minutes of game action.

However, based on the website’s “success rate” stat (I really have no clue how this is calculated, so take what you will from it), the Flames are the most successful team in extra skater situations, mostly thanks to the fact that they have allowed the fewest goals against with the net empty. They’re also up there for efficiency (goals for/total attempts), having scored goals on 20% of their extra skater situations, seventh in the league by that metric. Basically, the team scores when they need to and don’t allow the other team to put the game to bed. That’s what makes them one of the best extra skater teams in the league.

On the flip side, the Flames have the exact opposite problem. They’re pretty good at ending the other team’s hopes, having scored a league-leading 20 empty netters, but they’re middle of the pack in terms of allowing goals. With five goals against on 34 scenarios, they rank 18th in terms of efficiency (goals against/total attempts). That’s not the worst thing in the world, especially given the lopsided number of goals the team scores on the opposition, but maybe a bit concerning.