Thursday, April 30, 2015

Ten (plus one bonus) Keys to Success if the Flames are to Defeat the Ducks

For only the second time since the animated TV show The Simpsons made its debut, the Calgary Flames are into the second round of the Stanley Cup playoffs.

Yes, just as I predicted last September... doh!

Their opponent will be the Anaheim Ducks, who they've faced once before in the post-season -- although back then they were Mighty Ducks.

The year was 2006 and to give you a sense of how long ago that was, Edmonton made the playoffs that season. In fact, the Flames and Oilers were on a collision course to meet in the second round -- which would have been their first playoff meeting since 1991 -- when Calgary blew its 3-2 series lead thanks to a 2-1 setback in Anaheim in game 6 and then coming back to the Saddledome and getting shut out 3-0 by Ilya Bryzgalov.

Fast forward to 2015 and the Flames enter this series as the underdog but the gap is not as big as you might think. While the Ducks finished 12 points ahead of Calgary in the Pacific Division standings, the Flames goal-differential was higher at plus-25 compared to Anaheim at plus-10.


Ten Keys to Success for the Flames:

1. Be Wary of the Third Period Comeback

The Flames led after the first period only 18 times during the regular season, finishing ahead of only Detroit (17) and Buffalo (16). While it didn't happen very often, when they did get off to a first period lead, they were lethal, ranking second-best in the NHL at closing games out going 16-2-0.

Calgary held first period leads three times against Vancouver and continuing to improve in this area will be key for the Flames. That said, nobody has been better than Anaheim in coming back to win games in which they trail headed to the third period. The Ducks did it 12 times in the regular season and three more times against Winnipeg in round one.

With the Flames having been one of the NHL's best third period teams in terms of both goals for (99) and goals against (68), make sure you're comfortably back in your seat for the third periods in this series and whatever you do, don't leave early.


2. More Strong Play From the Flames Young Forwards 

The Flames deployed five rookie forwards in the series against Vancouver with four playing in all six games and playing key roles.

  • Can Johnny Gaudreau continue to create space for himself and be the spark for Calgary's top line?
  • Can mayoralty candidate Micheal Ferland pick up where he left off last series as a human wrecking ball, whose hits often seem to border on charging penalties yet he walked that fine line nearly to perfection.
  • Can Sam Bennett continue to make an impact at such a young age. He's the youngest player still going in the NHL playoffs but you wouldn't know it to watch him play. His arrival has helped spark the Flames secondary scoring.
  • Can Josh Jooris continue to wreak havoc on the Flames fourth line with his energy, speed and insatiable puck pursuit.

There have been no signs yet of any of these four rookies (Markus Granlund the other) wilting under the pressure of the moment yet the grind will continue to get tougher as the calendar turns to May so it will be a storyline to monitor.


3. Attack the Ducks Young Defence

A fascinating angle to this series is the Flames youth up front against a young Anaheim blue-line. Key in round one was Calgary's ability to take away time and space from the Canucks defencemen, who were under attack continually and not able to set up and make plays as they wanted to do. Unable to cope with the ferocious pressure, Vancouver's defence -- Alex Edler, Kevin Bieksa, Luca Sbisa, etc. were all forced into making turnovers repeatedly and they got worn down physically.

What remains to be seen is can Calgary pull off the same thing against a younger and more agile Anaheim defense, which features an impressive cast of rising stars not yet age 24 in Simon Despres (23), Cam Fowler (23), Sami Vatanen (23) and Hampus Lindholm (21).  

While they are quicker than the Canucks blue-liners, they could also be prone to the turnover if Calgary can turn on the heat. If the Ducks prove that they can counter attack quickly, Hartley may need to re-think this plan of attack but we'll see how the first couple games unfold first.


4. Contain Getzlaf and Perry

In the Canucks series, the Flames did a good job of avoiding too much damage from Daniel and Henrik Sedin. You don't go into a series against star players like that expecting to shut them out, you just want to limit their effectiveness and that's what Calgary did. The twins got their chances still -- Daniel led Vancouver with 22 shots on goal, but between the two of them, they had only two even-strength goals and a total of eight points.

The most damage that line did through it's high puck possession time was suppressing the effectiveness of the Flames top line by keeping Calgary's big three in their own end much of the time until Hartley made a point of getting them away from the Sedins in game 6.

However, the degree of difficulty goes up significantly against Corey Perry and Ryan Getzlaf, who are both 29 so five years younger than the Sedins. Also, there is equal finesse but more power to their games, which makes the deadly Ducks duo that much harder to contain. Limiting them will be the goal and key in that will be avoiding as often as possible those icing-induced long, long shifts where Anaheim can take advantage by getting their two menacing stars out in lopsided match-ups against tired players.


5. The Top Line Needs to Keep it Going 

Calgary did about the best they could in round one in taking a 3-2 lead in games without getting a sniff of an even-strength goal from their top line. That same formula probably doesn't get it done against Anaheim. In fact, you probably don't get a game five if Gaudreau, Sean Monahan and Jiri Hudler are skunked early in the series once again.

The good news is in breaking out big-time in game 6 with a combined 10 points, not only did the three of them have their mojo back but suddenly the fears that Monahan and Hudler were nursing injuries subsided.

The four days off between series will really help these three Flames, who shoulder so much ice time and responsibility.


6. Whose Turn Next as Unsung Hero

There was no shortage of unsung heros for the Flames against Vancouver and given the top line's ineffectiveness until game 6, the reason Calgary's season is still alive was the strong series turned in by the likes of Mikael Backlund, Bennett, Joe Colborne, David Jones, Matt Stajan and Ferland.

If there are three guys from the Flames bottom nine that I'd expect to shine once again it's Bennett, Backlund and Jones.
  • Every time he steps on the ice, Bennett gains more NHL experience and given his raw skills already, the overall package is only going to get better and more dynamic every game. Remember Gaudreau's first five games this year? No points. There's an adjustment that comes with stepping into an NHL game. This what Bennett is going through right now although it might be hard to tell because he's already been good. Also, he hasn't played nearly as much hockey as anyone else on the team and that freshness should become more noticeable as the post-season grinds on. 
  • Backlund was terrific against Vancouver and while it didn't translate to goals and assists -- was credited with just one helper, don't be surprised if he does cash in a lot more this series. He led Calgary in shots on goal and scoring chances against Vancouver and expect the pucks to start going in soon.
  • As for Jones, finally enjoying a long stretch of staying healthy, he's showing the power forward-type of game that Calgary was so attracted to when they got him from the Avalanche two years ago. Playoff hockey is bringing out the best in Jones' overall game.


7. Win the Special Teams Battles

During the regular season, the Ducks power play was 28th. I'm not buying it. I see them as dangerous and in going 3-for-11 on the man advantage against Winnipeg, they showed that.

Calgary was remarkably disciplined during the regular season and that resulted in them being shorthanded the fewest times of any team. That was a good thing too as the Flames PK was only 20th. However, we did not see that same ability to avoid infractions in round one when they were forced onto the PK 16 times.

Putting Getzlaf and Perry out there in a 5-on-4 will be death for the Flames if they do it too often. Meanwhile, Calgary was a potent 5-for-18 on the power play in round one and while that pace isn't sustainable, getting a key goal at a key time when they get the chance will play a big factor. The Ducks penalty-killing during the regular season was 15th and they killed off 11 of 13 against the Jets.


8. Quality over Quantity on Defence

Between series, Flames coach Bob Hartley quipped that his big three minute-munching defence -- Kris Russell, Dennis Wideman and TJ Brodie -- never left the ice tub. Same for Deryk Engelland, who has taken on a big role in that core group as well.

Playing mainly those four defencemen with David Schlemko as the distant fifth, Hartley is making up for the lack of depth on his blue-line but riding his best guys in games and managing their off-days by keeping them off the ice and giving them rest. Don't expect the early part of this series to be any different. With two days off after game one and then another two days off before game four, the series sets up nice early for Hartley to be able to keep his main horses out there. One thing that could hurt that would be a long overtime game but the Flames have avoided any type of extra time so far.


9.  Jonas Hiller vs His Former Team

Jonas Hiller was excellent against Vancouver. However, he wasn't the guy in goal when the team celebrated the first round victory. That suggests it's no lock that Hiller will remain the starter for Calgary in this series despite getting the tap to start in game one.

Hiller has a long history with the Ducks having played seven seasons in Anaheim. He also has something to prove after he fell out of favour with the Ducks in the playoffs last season.

Anaheim's players know Hiller but he knows them also so is there an advantage one way or another? Probably not. Expect Karri Ramo to be on stand-by for the Flames and the Finn could very well end up being a big factor in this series and given the hot streaks he's capable of going on, this is one area that remains a wildcard for the Flames. What we know is Hartley won't be hesitant about making the switch as he's done it all season.


10. Winning in Anaheim

Much has been made about the Flames inability to win in Anaheim, a streak of regular season futility that is now sitting at 20 losses in a row since Calgary's last win on January 19, 2004.

That said, the Flames team that will take to the ice tonight don't share much of that baggage.

First, you have a guy like Mason Raymond, who is 7-4-1 in his 12 career trips to Honda Center and he's also scored six goals in those dozen games. Schlemko (5 wins), Hudler (5 wins) and Russell (4 wins) are some others that have won plenty in Anaheim.

Meanwhile, for the Flames rookies, sophomores like Monahan and Colborne, they don't know any better when it comes to the so-called jinx because they've barely been a part of it. It's this element that makes Anaheim not nearly the same haunted house that it's made out to be. This is a new Calgary team so you can park all the historic numbers, which came mostly while half the Flames team were still playing major junior or in college.


11. (Bonus) Who is Returning from Injury?

Finding out the Caramilk secret would be an easier proposition this time of year than getting an accurate update on the health of injured players. So you don't really know how far away the walking wounded are for the Flames but as the series drags on and with game four not for another eight days, you start to wonder if Lance Bouma (hand), Raphael Diaz (lower body), Paul Byron (lower body) and even Mark Giordano (biceps) could eventually become available, giving Hartley additional options.

Given the war of attrition that the playoffs often can be, you never know what spots in the line-up may end up opening up at around the time one/some of these players might be available. It's something to monitor but in regards to Giordano in particular, while risking re-injury is something you know they won't do, you wonder at what point -- and at what percentage he'd be in terms of his health (65 percent, 75 percent, etc.) that he becomes a better option than the seldom-used Tyler Wotherspoon or Corey Potter. Don't get too optimistic about this happening yet stay tuned on this one.


It should be a great series so enjoy. May hockey is a privilege, not a right, so soak it up and relish it.



By the way, have you liked Flames From 80 Feet on Facebook yet? Go there and do so now. It's just another way to be alerted to new Calgary Flames articles that I've written.

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