Series Preview: Calgary & Vancouver
Calgarypuck Playoff Coverage 2004

D'Arcy McGrath
April 7th, 2004

When the Calgary Flames take to the ice on tonight in Vancouver it will mark the first post season game played in over 2,900 days.

2,900 days!

When you last tuned in the local squad was squeezing the last ounce of juice from a dominant period in team history. Over the span of 12 years the team, if you can forgive the obligatory Bob Johnson playoff terminology, conquered the climbing of a mountain in beating the Wayne Gretzky led Edmonton Oilers, a cup win in 1989, then a period of five more years of regular season dominance quickly followed by post season dishonor.

The 1996 Flames managed a playoff appearance through shear might, but then quickly evaporated in four playoff games and ushered in a tumultuous time in team history that saw 2 1/2 rebuilding periods culminating in city wide frustration.

All that changed on December 28th, 2003 when Darryl Sutter was hired to coach the Calgary Flames after being cast aside in San Jose, those in Flame Nation (yes Nation is a Leaf term, but it has a ring to it) just didn't realize it yet.

Roughly a year ago, Sutter added the general manager title to his nameplate and in that 365-day period the Flames have become a playoff team.

Missing the dance for seven straight seasons creates a very interesting vantage point for a team like the Calgary Flames.

You're not an expansion team gaining birth for the first time in franchise history, like the Nashville Predators this spring.

However, you also don't have that feel of a storied playoff past, rich with tradition and that mystique that transcends player's names once they pull on the jersey.

In this case, that's a good thing.

Every spring the Flames would clinch a higher seed in their division or conference, get pushed to the limit against a weaker opponent, pull up their socks when the chips were down and completely out play said opponent, and then lose anyway on a heartbreaking over time goal.

With that came an annual choke label that had hockey fans torn between crying in their beer or punching someone in the face.

Now there's a whole new feeling in town. The average hockey fan is just so glad to be back in the playoffs that they have a greater appreciation for just being there. The local club has already made everyone's season setting up a playoff series of "gravy" with little by way of expectations.

It's time Calgary ... kick it up.



Even without the menacing Todd Bertuzzi the Vancouver Canucks have a huge advantage up front. Heck, Mike Keane alone has more playoff experience than the majority of Calgary's forward ranks combined.

Both clubs (in Bertuzzi's absence) have one true star player with Jarome Iginla suiting up for the Flames and Markus Naslund for the Canucks. Naslund is the shiftier player, but Iginla has more size and strength. Naslund has more playoff experience, but Iginla is coming in on more of a high.

Depth wise the Canucks are in much better shape with 15 healthy forwards vying for 12 spots while the Flames may have to pretty much dress every healthy body they have.

The Flames will have to give a good dose of playoff experience to at least two of Oleg Saprykin, Chuck Kobasew or Matthew Lombardi, which could cause on ice peril and a quickly shortened bench by Darryl Sutter.

The Canucks added to their mix in the wake of the Bertuzzi incident by picking up Martin Rucinsky and Geoff Sanderson, both competent NHL'ers with limited playoff success.

Bottom line? Vancouver has skill and experience, Calgary has an edge in size and speed, but in the end it's the little digits on the scoreboard that matter.



The defenceman battle in this series is a tough one to call.

The Canucks are dangerous from the backside as they have a more mobile defence that can burn a team if the gap between forwards and blueliners grows wide enough to create a seam.

The Calgary backchecking brigade will have to be on top of their game or the fourth man in may catch Calgary stopper Miikka Kiprusoff down and out and unable to corral that second rebound with the likes of Ed Jovanovski, Mattias Ohlund and Brent Sopel lingering around.

The Flames aren't without their advantages on the blueline as well. The group, when healthy, can boast a great arsenal of punishing defenceman that are anything but pleasant to play against.

Most of the Canucks skill up front is somewhat on the soft side, a fact that Calgary can exploit with a physical series from the likes of Rhett Warrener, Robyn Regehr, Denis Gauthier and to a lesser degree Mike Commodore or Steve Montador.

It really comes down to effectiveness. If the Canucks' defence brigade can make a difference offensively the Vancouver club stands a good chance to win. Similarly, if a physical pounding by the Calgary defence can put some self doubt in the hearts of Canuck attackers the series can swing towards Calgary in an instant.



Time to walk out that old cliché; you win with goaltending in the playoffs.

Last spring the Vancouver Canucks ran smack dab into that reality when the playoff befuddled Dan Cloutier folded against the Minnesota Wild and the Canucks dropped a 3-1 series lead. When the dust settled Cloutier had an appalling 3.24 goals against average and a .886 save percentage. Not good enough.

Clearly this is Cloutier's last chance in the west coast Canadian city - you can run up 30 win season after 30 win season, but continue to sputter in the post season and a team is forced to look elsewhere.

Looking elsewhere is exactly what the Calgary Flames did almost six months ago when they brought in Miikka Kiprusoff from San Jose for a conditional draft pick in the wake of a nasty knee injury to starter Roman Turek. At the time many a Calgary fan bemoaned the fact that a 2nd round pick was given up for a third streak, stop-gap goaltender, but instead the quiet keeper has turned the franchise around.

The Flames play good team defence, finishing 3rd in goals against this season, but prior to Kiprusoff's arrival they didn't have the big play goaltender to turn limited chances against to unlimited success.

They do now.

Statistically, Kiprusoff runs away with the matchup in this playoff series, but he does lack Cloutier's experience, even if said experience mostly came in the form of egg in the face.

With that said, this is the one true are where the Flames have a sizeable edge.


Special Teams

The powerplay can be the deciding factor in the playoffs, but one has to wonder if that's not the case in this series.

Neither club has a particularly effective powerplay with the Flames garnering the circuit's 21st best unit and the Canucks the league's 22nd. Powerhouses they are not.

On the other side of the puck one can find Vancouver with the league's 3rd best penalty kill unit, and the Flames the 13th despite being 2nd last until mid November.

This may be a five on five series.



It's playoff time so the first and really only important statistic when analyzing coaches is the bottom line. Marc Crawford led the 1996 Colorado Avalanche to the franchise's first Stanley Cup on the back of a steller performance by captain Joe Sakic.

Since then he's taken the sadsack Vancouver Canucks back to the playoffs, finally winning a playoff round in dramatic fashion over the St. Louis Blues.

Darryl Sutter has had a different path for his career. His nine full years of NHL coaching have all included playoffs at the end (not counting his relief duty in Calgary last spring), with his clubs winning their first round matchups exactly half of the time.

Sutter has coached a team into the conference finals twice.

From a Flame perspective, I would argue he's the best Calgary bench boss to coach in the playoffs since Badger Bob Johnson left Calgary for retirement and then the Pittsburgh Penguins. Terry Crisp may have been a great quote, but he inherited a heck of a team in winning the Stanley Cup his second year in Calgary. Motivationally speaking, Sutter is the best coaching leader since the animated Johnson left his perch.



Playoff series are seeded for a reason, one team is simply better than the other team.

NHL parity has cut that gap down to the point that many a series is up for grabs in the first round like no other time in the league's history. With the exception of a few series, they could literally go either way.

As a result, the pressure on the higher seeded team has never been higher, as they have earned home ice, are favoured to win each series but don't have a lot of room for error against some pretty formidable opponents.

The Flames and Canucks finished three spots apart in the standings, but only one win, and seven points in the standings. To put that in perspective, the Canucks finished 21 wins and 43 points behind the Flames in 1989.

The gap is just so much closer.

The Canucks busted out of their doldrums three seasons ago, making the playoffs at the 11th hour and giving the Colorado Avalanche a good push. They had nothing to lose, and that playoff series served notice that the Canucks would be a team to reckon with in coming seasons.

Like the Flames of the early 90's, the Canucks have soon learned that elevated expectations can lead to staggering disappointment when things don't come out as planned, as seen in last season's blown series lead to the Wild.

This spring the Canucks have a built in reason to lessen the pressure with Todd Bertuzzi on the sidelines, but a first round loss to the all but forgotten Flames would surely result in many changes out west.


My Pick

It almost seems fitting that the familiar Vancouver Canucks are the squad to host the Flames return to the playoff dance after seven years sitting on the sideline in self loathing.

The two teams have a somewhat storied playoff history with some epic seven game finishes and on ice incidents that have built the lore of both Western Canadian Clubs.

Canuck fans still think Joel Otto kicked in the game seven winner in 1989, though he was facing the other direction and it is somewhat impossible to bend a knee backward.

Calgary fans and Gary Roberts can hold former Canuck Sergei Momesso accountable for almost ending the Flame wingers career with a cross check to the back of the neck in the '94 series.

You have Mike Vernon's save on Stan Smyl, Pavel Bure's winner in games seven, Tiger Williams riding his goal stick in mock cheering, and those gaudy nasty Vancouver uniforms of season's past.

Here's hoping the two teams are ready to add another exhilarating chapter.




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