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Photo Credit: Candice Ward/USA Today Sports

Why shorthanded goals could clinch the Flames games

When your power play surges in Game 1 but sputters by Game 2 of your Stanley Cup Qualifying Round series, you can no longer be solely optimistic. Somebody has to score, and you cannot coast through even-strength action relying on your power play for boosts.

But when your even-strength lineup staggers through entire periods without generating a single high-danger scoring chance for themselves—like the Calgary Flames in Game 2 against the Winnipeg Jets—being realistic is not enough either. Somebody has to score, but for some reason your men cannot even sniff the net five-on-five.

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Inconsistent with the man-advantage, stifled for long stretches at even-strength, the Flames’ success in this series against the Jets hinges on being not optimistic or realistic but opportunistic. The Flames need to pounce on every Jets hiccup, misstep, and blunder because they seemingly could not craft anything for themselves, power play and otherwise, in Game 2.

An example? Cue this reeking stinker of an “outlet pass” from Nikolaj Ehlers.

This mistake gifted a goal for Elias Lindholm.

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Another? Some divine intervention plants Nathan Beaulieu in the blue paint and angles his skate directly at his own net.

Bad bounce gifts a goal for Sam Bennett.

When your strengths stumble, you have to start exploiting weaknesses instead.

1. Now, for the Winnipeg Jets, one of said weaknesses lurks beneath their power play.

2. The Flames thrived whenever they unearthed said weakness throughout the regular season.

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3. Certain lineup decisions taken so far this series have optimized their probability of targeting this weakness, too.

Somebody has to score—why not a penalty killer?

The Jets’ man-advantage disadvantage

The Winnipeg Jets boasted a middling but respectable powerplay during the regular season. A 20.49% conversion rate squeaked them the 15th-best powerplay in the league. Nothing to scoff at.

Where the Jets’ power play falters, however, is not in the offensive zone but behind their own blueline.

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(Graphic courtesy of NaturalStatTrick)

The condensed table above displays the Goals For and Against (GF/GA) and Expected Goals For and Against (xGF/xGA) for NHL teams during this past regular season while on the power play. The numbers on the left rank teams by their xGA on the power play—the higher the team in the table, the more shorthanded goals they are expected to concede based on the number of high-quality shots they allow on their power plays. As the graph highlights, the Jets wield the 4th-highest xGA on the power play in the entire league at a total whopping 7.52 expected goals against, which hugely overshadows the 19th-ranked Flames’ total at 4.93.

So, even though they only allowed three shorthanded goals all year, the Jets thereby routinely suffer defensive lapses on the power play that issue oodles of scoring chances to opposing penalty killers compared.

Their power play hiccups, mistakes, and blunders well above average.

The Flames capitalized on this in Game 1, when Tobias Rieder snatched a bobbled pass and blazed down the ice for a breakaway goal that proved the game-winner. As their regular season stats hinted they could, the Jets’ playoff power play yielded a golden opportunity. The Flames stamping their cheque on it gave them the (brief) lead in the series.

Flames flickering in the box

But in all seriousness, how much do shorthanded goals even matter?

Well, special teams play defined the first two Qualifying games more than anything else. The Flames surrendered seven penalties in Game 1 and another six in Game 2—five unraveling in the third period alone— so confronting the Jets’ leaky power play is nothing new for them simply because they can be so undisciplined. The Flames finished the regular season 11th in the league with a not unsubstantial 8.8 penalties-in-minutes per game (PIM/G), implying that they averaged over four distinct penalty kills every night. Shorthanded minutes abound.

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Shorthanded scoring opportunities, however, did not match the pace. The Flames posted a total 5.19 xGF while shorthanded during the regular season, trailing 18 teams with higher chance outputs. They did, however, exceed their shorthanded xGF in actual shorthanded GF with a total of six goals in six games over the course of the year. Their record on those nights? 5-1-0.

None were game-winning goals, and most simply padded their leads, but there is a direct correlation between scoring shorthanded goals and winning games for the Flames. If their discipline disappears, power play struggles and even-strength play fizzles again, like in Game 2, a shorthanded goal could represent their only shot at reviving the guys and securing a win.

The right soldiers for the ambush

Of those six shorthanded goals netted during the regular season:
• Mikael Backlund scored three
• Tobias Rieder scored one
• Derek Ryan scored one
• Michael Frolik scored one (mere days before his trade to the Buffalo Sabres)

Advanced stats bolster the suggestion that the Flames deploy Backlund, Rieder, and Ryan on the PK to optimize their shot at a rare shorthanded one. These guys round out the podium of Flames forwards in terms of shorthanded xGF— in individual cases, signifying the number of total expected goals during the season while this player was on the ice in the specified situation—with Elias Lindholm nabbing the fourth spot as a PK minute-muncher despite his lack of shorthanded goals himself.

(Graphic courtesy of NaturalStatTrick)

The Flames rolled Backlund-Lindholm and Ryan-Reider as their two forward tandems on the PK in Game 2. That structure passes the eye-test and upholds the crunched numbers. Expect it to stay.

But what about Mark Jankowski?

Philosophical Question: If shorthanded goals can win you games, and the Jets are especially susceptible to shorthanded goals, should the Flames insert last season’s silver-medal shorthanded goal-scorer into the lineup?

Pragmatic Answer: Not for that reason.

Jankowski, fifth on the Flames in shorthanded xGF, tied for second in the entire NHL in shorthanded goals in the 2018-2019 season with four but scored only five total goals this past year—not a single shortie.

Flash forward to the Qualifying Round, and he sat upstairs both games as a scratch.

Despite his one glorious season, Jankowski’s shorthanded-specialized mitts froze over the summer. His mere presence on the ice alludes to no more scoring chances than Rieder. The Flames could substitute Rinaldo for Jankowski before Game 3 if they want, but replacing Rieder would be totally misguided. The German is more valuable shorthanded, a conceivable (and proven) scorer entrenched in a PK system with a gob-smacking 92.31% success rate so far this series.

Tobias Rieder

The current four troops make a perfect PK squadron to push and press a Jets power play predisposed to breakdowns. Now, no penalty killer should strive to score goals before playing tight, cautious defence against a power play. Ever.

But if (when?) the opportunity arises, Backlund and Lindholm and Rieder and Ryan are the men to grasp it. Bring on the penalties for Game 3.