CALGARY FLAMES – By Brian Costello
The top line of Sean Monahan between Johnny Gaudreau and Elias Lindholm was one of the best in the league in 2018-19. In 2019-20, it was predictable and stoppable. The line accounted for 3.24 points per game a year ago. This year it was 2.29. That’s a 30-percent correction.
Opposing teams expected the Gaudreau button-hook inside the blueline and swarmed him before he could effectively dish off a pass. Monahan struggled in his pursuit of the puck, and his 13.3 shooting percentage was the lowest of his career. At least Lindholm continued his torrid pace, leading Flames with 29 goals. Most nights, the second line of Mikael Backlund between Matthew Tkachuk and Andrew Mangiapane showed the required pluck to battle through defenses and work hard at both ends of the ice.
In last year’s playoffs, the Flames were manhandled by the speed of Colorado’s attack and didn’t have the physical makeup to wear them down by taking the body. The additions of Milan Lucic and Derek Forbort add more snarl to the lineup, but does it slow them down as well?
Calgary was bitten by the injury bug on the blueline, losing Mark Giordano, T.J. Brodie and Travis Hamonic for extended stretches – plus losing projected top-sixer Juuso Valimaki to season-ending knee surgery. But the acquisitions of Forbort and Erik Gustafsson at the deadline mean the Flames are eight blueliners deep for the post-season, even with Hamonic opting out.
Against virtually every potential playoff opponent, the Flames look overmatched in the goaltending department. For two seasons now, David Rittich has had a solid first half but worn down and struggled during the home stretch. It’s a good thing Cam Talbot has been so dependable in relief. Compare the statistics and performances of both stoppers and you wonder why the Flames give the nod to Rittich most of the time.
X-Factor: Until Gaudreau can figure out a counter-attack to the swarming defenses he faces, the Flames are a team without a dynamic difference-maker. The chemistry he and Monahan shared for Gaudreau’s first five seasons is gone. In the 82 games between all-star breaks in 2019 and 2020, he had 28 goals and 64 points, a far cry from the point-per-game player and Hart Trophy contender he’s been the past few years. The good news is Gaudreau looked to be coming out of his funk in February and March with 18 points in 18 games. Can he maintain that gear in the playoffs when the game becomes harder to play?
WINNIPEG JETS – By Jared Clinton
What more can Connor Hellebuyck give the Winnipeg Jets? That’s the question that will determine the franchise’s post-season fate.
Given the off-season exodus on the blueline, which included the departures of Jacob Trouba, Tyler Myers, Ben Chiarot and, unexpectedly, Dustin Byfuglien, Winnipeg very easily could have plummeted in the standings. But Hellebuyck wouldn’t allow it. Though his base numbers – 2.57 GAA, .922 SP – may not shine as brightly as some of the NHL’s top keepers’ do, he has played under more duress than most netminders.
Only a handful of teams allowed more shots against per game, which is the result of Winnipeg relying on a ragtag group of defenders prone to potentially catastrophic lapses. Despite that, Hellebuyck pieced together a campaign that is Vezina Trophy-worthy and even made him a fringe Hart Trophy contender. It’s been said of other goaltenders, but it has never been truer than it is right now in Winnipeg: as goes Hellebuyck, so go the Jets.
That’s not to say Hellebuyck is without support. The emergence of Kyle Connor as a 40-goal threat and a talented top six that also includes Mark Scheifele, Blake Wheeler, Patrik Laine and Nikolaj Ehlers means Winnipeg has the ability to score in bunches and come out on top in contests that devolve into last-goal-wins affairs. The Jets’ power play may be middling, but it can get hot at a moment’s notice given the breadth of talent.
An effective power play is all the more important, too, given the Jets’ wretched penalty kill. Winnipeg has played incredibly disciplined hockey this season, shorthanded the second-fewest times among all NHL squads, but the Jets are a bottom-10 team on the PK. Winning the special-teams battle and receiving elite goaltending is a recipe for success, and it could be the only way for Winnipeg to cook up a deep playoff run.
X-factor: Patrik Laine didn’t have one monkey on his back entering the playoffs last season – he had the whole barrel. Prone to streaky scoring, the Jets sniper had one goal in the final 19 regular-season games. However, when Laine heats up, there are few players more lethal. He scored in three straight to kick off the first-round series against the eventual champion St. Louis Blues and was all over the ice. Laine’s scoring wasn’t nearly as turbulent this season, with 28 goals spread over 68 games, but he can still get white-hot in the playoffs, and if he does, he can singlehandedly power the offense and turn the tide in any series.
Oct. 26, 2019: Jets 2, Flames 1 (OT, Heritage Classic at Mosaic Stadium)
Saturday, Aug. 1, 10:30 p.m.: Jets at Flames
Monday, Aug. 3, 2:30 p.m.: Jets at Flames
Tuesday, Aug. 4, 6:45 p.m.: Flames at Jets
Thursday, Aug. 6, TBD: Flames at Jets *
Saturday, Aug. 8, TBD, Jets at Flames *
(All games listed in eastern time)
THE HOCKEY NEWS’ SERIES PICK: Jets in five games
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