The upstart Flames have made it to the dance, but the Vancouver Canucks stand in the way of Calgary continuing their improbable run. The Canucks will rely, as always, on the Sedins, but the Flames young guns will look to keep pace with their veteran opponents.
HOW THEY WIN
CANUCKS: Henrik and Daniel Sedin are back as marquee NHLers. When Vancouver’s secondary scoring dried up in the second half, the Sedins played their best hockey, cycling the puck like they did in their glory days. The likes of Nick Bonino never did wake up on the second line, but behemoth Zack Kassian clicked with the twins and started scoring, which let coach Willie Desjardins keep sniper Radim Vrbata on the No. 2 unit. Stud prospect Bo Horvat blossomed on a grind line with Ronalds Kenins and Jannik Hansen. Horvat had some handy big-game experience as a teenager, from the world juniors to multiple Memorial Cups. Alexander Edler played his best ‘D’ since losing his confidence in the 2011-12 playoffs. He and Chris Tanev form the team’s top pair. Ryan Miller may not recover from his knee injury in time for the playoffs, but Eddie Lack outperformed Miller in relief, anyway.
FLAMES: The Flames win by playing a classic rope-a-dope style – starting out sluggish, falling behind early, lulling the opposition into a sense of security, then coming back and winning in the third period. In reality, none of that is planned. But what cannot be denied is the fact Calgary had the best goal-differential in the third period and was among league-leaders in come-from-behind victories in the final frame. The hardworking Flames have done a complete transformation in just a few seasons – growing from the dump-and-chase Brent Sutter approach to a layered east-west attack that starts from a mobile D-corps. It’s not uncommon to see T.J. Brodie or Kris Russell charge the net or a Dennis Wideman or (injured) Mark Giordano digging in the offensive corners. Calgary receives scoring from all four lines and has one of the best shooting percentages in the league.
HOW THEY LOSE
CANUCKS: The roster is in a transitional phase, with some of the organization’s best prospects not yet with the big club. This team lacks all-around talent compared to the other West powerhouses. Bonino, for example, centers the second unit but would be Chicago’s fourth-best pivot. Vancouver also must cross its fingers that defensemen Kevin Bieksa and Dan Hamhuis peak in time for the post-season. Both spent much of the year injured and Hamhuis struggled uncharacteristically before getting hurt. These two are supposed to be the Canucks’ workhorses. Lastly – what effect, if any, will Miller’s return have? He couldn’t make the big save last spring for St. Louis. The Canucks will be an underdog against virtually any first-round opponent and will need Miller to stand on his head. Is he up to the task as a 34-year-old coming off an injury? Or does Vancouver continue to run with Lack?
FLAMES: Rare was the occasion the Flames suffered a blowout loss. An indefatigable work ethic kept this team within one or two goals (not counting empty-netters) just about every outing. The best way to stop Calgary is to clog up the neutral zone, not allowing the likes of Johnny Gaudreau, Mikael Backlund and the mobile D-men a chance to gain the blueline. Because the Flames are such a poor puck possession team, a rival willing to attack and match Calgary’s work ethic is sure to generate more shot attempts, scoring chances and, presumably, goals. With the exception of a few players, the Flames don’t play a black-and-blue style and are often neutralized by heavy physical contact, especially targeting the smallish defenders. They’re also pushovers in the faceoff circle, which is one reason why they take among the fewest shots in the league. Many of the best Flames are young and inexperienced.
GOALIE ZONE by Jamie McLennan
CANUCKS: Ryan Miller and Eddie Lack are both capable goaltenders. Lack showed last season he is durable enough to play for a long stretch if needed, and he’s performed well for the Canucks this year. But if he’s healthy, I think Miller will be given every opportunity to be the main man for Vancouver. Miller’s game has gotten quieter, but not in a bad way. There’s just not a lot of motion in his game when he’s on. He’s aggressive but set. Positioning is his strength, and he’s very efficient. When he’s focused, it’s like the pucks are coming to him.
FLAMES: Jonas Hiller makes no apologies for playing from his knees. He’s a veteran percentage goaltender who tells the opposition, “I’m going to butterfly on you every time. On every shot that comes near me, I’m going to go down, and if you’re going to beat me, you’re going to have to beat me by the ears and shoot high.” There’s a stat that essentially says 85 percent of shots are directed at the lower part of the net, and Hiller is someone who’s going to take his chances with the 15 percent of the shots that come up top.
CANUCKS: Radim Vrbata flies under the radar as a cheap, reliable fantasy option. He made the All-Star Game thanks to his numbers alongside the Sedin twins, but Vrbata remained productive after sliding down to the second line. He’s a 30-goal talent who still gets plenty of power play minutes.
FLAMES: Blueliners Dennis Wideman and Kris Russell experienced immediate spikes in production after Mark Giordano’s season-ending injury. Wideman in particular can put up points in the right situation. He’s a sneaky add as an endgame pick for your playoff roster. Just don’t expect a ton of games, as the Flames have a tough road in the West.
KEY MATCHUP by Dom Luszczyszyn Without Mark Giordano, the Flames have an awfully big hole on the backend and it’s up to T.J. Brodie to hold everything down. Shutting down the Sedins is no easy task, but Brodie has done a good job in the past getting the shot advantage. The big thing, though, was limiting Henrik and his linemates to just one goal in 95 minutes. Henrik has been very good this season, along with Daniel, so this matchup really could dictate how the series unfolds. If Brodie can continue what he’s done since 2010, the Flames can continue their Cinderella run.
THN PREDICTION: Calgary in six.
READ THN’S OTHER ROUND 1 PREVIEWS IN OUR STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF FEED.