The Calgary Flames will face off against the Winnipeg Jets in a best-of-five Qualifying Round series beginning on Saturday night. The Flames enter the series as a very slight favourite among odds-makers, but there are a few reasons why the Jets could come out on top.
Hellebuyck gonna Hellebuyck
Jets goaltender Connor Hellebuyck is, in a word, good. Playing behind an injury-riddled team and a relatively weak blueline, he was superb most of the season and invincible for stretches. He may be the single most important player, on either side, in the whole series.
Simply put: if Hellebuyck can be a difference-maker in one or two games and stymie the Flames, that could effectively decide the entire series.
The Jets’ many snipers
Bryan Little missed the bulk of this season for Winnipeg, which really hurt their offensive depth. Despite this loss, the Jets had five players score 20 goals or more: Kyle Connor, Mark Scheifele, Patrik Laine, Nikolaj Ehlers and Blake Wheeler. They’ve been criticized for being top-heavy – and they are top-heavy. But their top two lines are very good and very dangerous.
In other words: it’s not just Laine they have to worry about.
The bakery may be open
The Flames are a team that is bolstered or sunk by their ability to play their transition game. If they can consistently minimize scoring chances and get the puck out of their zone and into the other team’s end, they’re in good shape. But a tendency of theirs all season has been to cheat on the transition – their forwards moving towards the neutral zone too early – which has led to turnovers and way too many quality scoring chances against.
Bob Hartley called it the bakery. Glen Gulutzan called them “self inflicted wounds.” But regardless of what you want to call them, giving your opposition time and space in your defensive zone is a recipe fo a loss.
The vanishing core
Finally, let’s be honest: the Flames’ highly-touted core wasn’t up to snuff against Colorado. Nathan MacKinnon and his teammates elevated their game and aside from a handful of Flames depth players (and Mike Smith), few players in red sweaters did the same.
If the likes of Johnny Gaudreau, Sean Monahan, Elias Lindholm and Matthew Tkachuk aren’t making notable contributions on a nightly basis, the Flames won’t be playing for very long.