A return to the playoffs is magic. Be it every year, missing a year, after five years, or like up in Edmonton ten years.
Back in 2004 when the Flames returned to the playoffs after missing 6 seasons in the post season the building was electric. People were in their seats before the warmup, the building almost 90% full 45 minutes before the puck drop; the players hit the ice to loosen up to a chant of “Go Flames Go”.
Two years ago that feeling was back, not to the same extent, but it was back.
This year the Flames are back in the dance, and to a man you can tell they feel like the deserve it; it’s no longer a surprise. They made it on their skill, their depth, and not on late game comebacks, or unsustainable metrics.
A first round match up with the Ducks is an interesting case study in the two playoff teams as they are facing off against their second round opponent from two years ago. The Ducks an experience team are just that little bit more experienced. The rebuilding Flames are just that little more built.
To change things up, we’ll diverge from the usual “how they match up” analysis, and look more at how much the two teams have changed.
The Ducks key players are all two years wiser, but also two years older, and there really hasn’t been a change at the top of the pecking order with Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry, Ryan Kesler, Jacob Silferverg at the top. Effectively Kyle Palmeri, Patrick Maroon and Matt Beleskey have been swapped out for Antoine Vermette, Nick Ritchie and Patrick Eaves.
Are they better? Probably not. They’re older, and perhaps a little slower, but still very very good.
The Flames are quite the different story. At the top the same three players lead the way in ice time with Sean Monahan, Johnny Gaudreau and Mikael Backlund leading the way. But from there things have changed drastically. In the 2015 playoffs the next five in ice time were Joe Colborne, Jiri Hudler, Matt Stajan, Lance Bouma and David Jones. This year’s team instead will have Micheal Frolik, Troy Brouwer, Sam Bennett, Kris Versteeg and Matthew Tkachuk. The club has moved much further both in terms of promotions and young players improving over two more seasons. The Flames are certainly deeper and more formidable through their forward ranks.
Even the swap of Hudler for Micheal Ferland on the top line is a huge change in the dynamic of the hockey club.
On the Blue
The Ducks top trio are all back, well at least in terms of still being with the team. Hampus Lindholm and Sami Vatanen are young defensemen that have only gotten better since their matchup with the Flames two years ago. Cam Fowler is still on the roster, and a great player, but sidelined due to a hit from Calgary captain Mark Giordano a week ago. Kevin Bieksa and Josh Manson replace Francois Beauchemin and Simon Depres. They’d be better if Fowler was available, but they are worse because he is not.
The Flames top four two years ago was TJ Brodie with Derryk Engelland and Dennis Wideman with Kris Russell. Today they’ve added Mark Giordano and Dougie Hamilton on top of the list, moved Brodie down with a reliable Michael Stone, and have slipped Engelland to the fourth line along with Matt Bartkowski. I’d love to have David Schlemko back, but the group of six is massively upgraded due to the Hamilton and Stone trades and the health of Giordano; a huge plus for the Flames.
Between the Posts
The Ducks had John Gibson and starter Fredrik Andersson two years ago, with Andersson being the starter. Today they have Gibson as a solid, young number one goaltender, but their depth is weakened by having Johnathan Bernier as a backup in comparison to the big Dane that plies his trade in Toronto. Bernier was solid down the stretch, but there’s little point in arguing their goaltending isn’t as deep as 2015.
The Flames are better both in starter and in backup when you consider a swap of Jonas Hiller and Kari Ramo for Brian Elliott and Chad Johnson. Heck I think I like the third string guy in Calgary (Jon Gillies) better than Hiller, but I’ll admit Ramo was pretty damn solid in that series.
Blackboard and Bench
This one is interesting, as both head coaches have been removed and replaced by new leaders behind the bench.
The Ducks ousted a regular season possession champion that couldn’t get them through game seven, for a guy that gets owned in analytics but has taken them to the promised land the last time he held down the job in Anaheim. The Ducks have added experience, but perhaps taken a step back in the modern way of looking at coaches.
The Flames have moved a possession swamped veteran coach who was a good motivator, with a very sound young technical coach that has done a good job of turning his team around and getting them back to the playoffs. I personally like Gulutzan’s ability to make changes on the fly this season better than what I saw from Hartley in his tenure in Calgary.
The above illustrates to me the main point in all this.
The Ducks are a solid hockey team, full of proven veterans with cup rings and olympic gold medals. They are a favourite and they deserve to be.
However the Flames have closed the gap in every single facet of the team’s games in the two years since they last met in a playoff series; and with that there exists a tonne of hope. Did the Flames close the gap enough to win this series? Or did they just close the gap enough to make the series much more interesting? Either way it’s a step in the right direction and should make for a way more interesting battle this time around, though the last one was much closer than many remember.
Some keys for me …
- The Flames need to play the same robotic game. Doesn’t matter if they’re up or down in a game, or up and down in the series. Stay with the game plan.
- The Flames need to turn away from the chaos that Anaheim will bring; which means no retaliation penalties, but also no flapping of the arms to the officials from Johnny Gaudreau.
- Brian Elliott has to out play John Gibson.
- The Flames need to not lose the special team battle. Square it fine, but don’t lose it.
- The top line has to be converted to a fourth line with skill … hear me out on this. If Gaudreau doesn’t see a lane get it deep, as that will let Micheal Ferland unleash his fury on the forecheck. Let him turn the puck over and take advantage. If the line gets too cute too often, they’ll make his impact negligible.
The team doesn’t need a miracle to beat the Ducks this time around, they just need to play their game and get a bounce or two.
The Pacific is on the precipice of change. The Kings have already taken a step backwards and fired their entire management staff this week. The Sharks and Ducks are facing aging cores and a closing window. The Coyotes, Canucks and expansion Knights are all rebuilding and a few years away from being a factor. It’s Alberta time and I think it starts this week …
Flames in 6.