The Vancouver Canucks have a slight statistical advantage going into their first-round NHL Playoffs matchup against the Calgary Flames. But don’t sell the Flames short. They have proven the experts wrong throughout the season.
The teams basically split the four-game regular season series with the Flames gaining an extra point due to an overtime loss in December.
If the Flames have the edge, it is in goal, as they know who their starting goalie will be. Jonas Hiller who enjoyed a fine season. The former Swiss Olympian posted a 2.36 goals against average and a .918 save percentage in 52 appearances this season.
Vancouver has a decision to make between the pipes. Do they go with veteran Ryan Miller who just returned from injury, or do they roll with Eddie Lack, who played very well in Miller’s absence? Miller may have playoff experience, but it was Lack who posted better numbers in the season.
In 41 appearances, Lack recorded a 2.45 goals against average and a .921 save percentage. Miller meanwhile, posted a 2.53 goals against average and a .911 save percentage in 45 appearances. How the Canucks approach this could decide the series.
Miller himself seemed uncertain of his chances of starting Game 1.
“I’m still very much in injury recovery, but I wanted to work hard and get back to the point where I can be an option,” Miller told the Vancouver Province.
Flames Playing With Fire
The Flames have concerns of their own. Puck possession is a huge issue as their 44.4 percent suggests. Only Colorado and Buffalo had worse puck possession numbers (i.e. worse at generating shots toward the opposition net versus preventing shots on their own goal).
But Flames coach Bob Hartley isn’t concerned about analytics or the critics of his team. He said as much in an interview with the Calgary Herald:
“Personally, I don’t live my life proving people wrong. The people that hired me, the people who are my bosses, our fans, those are the people you have to prove right.”
What the Flames have accomplished is remarkable. Hartley and his staff deserve praise for proving the doubters wrong. However, the Flames are playing with fire so to speak.
They can’t spend over half the game inside their own blue line. It plays right into the hands of the Sedin twins who are masters at cycling the puck in the opposition end to create scoring opportunities.
If the Flames can find a way to spend more time in the Canucks end, offensive sparkplugs such as Jiri Hudler, Johnny Gaudreau, and Sean Monahan could shine.
Hudler had an excellent season leading the Flames in scoring with 76 points (31 goals, 45 assists.) Those figures are good enough for eighth overall in the NHL.
Gaudreau is a candidate for the Calder Trophy as the league’s top rookie this season. His 24-goal, 40-assist campaign gave him a share of first place with Mark Stone of the Ottawa Senators in scoring among freshmen in the NHL.
Monahan followed up a strong 22-goal rookie season with a terrific 31-goal sophomore campaign, which included a team high eight game-winning goals.
The Flames will need that trio to be in top form as 35.6 percent of its goals came from Hudler, Gaudreau, and Monahan. If they can’t generate offence, the Flames will be in trouble.
The Flames likely won’t have centre Lance Bouma who is recovering from a suspected broken hand. That puts a dent in their secondary scoring. Bouma was having a fine season, registering 16 goals and 18 assists in 78 games.
Vancouver does hold the edge in special teams. The Canucks power play ranks ninth in the NHL with a 19.3 percent success rate. The Flames penalty kill struggled with an 80.6 percent success rate, which placed them 20th in the NHL.
Calgary will need to stay disciplined in this series. They can’t afford to take retaliation penalties and have to avoid the shenanigans of pests like Alex Burrows.
The Canucks penalty killing was outstanding this season, finishing second in the NHL with an 85.7 percent success rate. The Flames power play was decent, ranking 13th with an 18.8 percent success rate. Calgary will have a tough time trying to solve Vancouver’s penalty kill, especially without Mark Giordano, their best defenseman and power play quarterback.
The Flames have been overachieving all season with grit and determination, while the Canucks, on paper, are stronger. Expect a series that goes the distance, but Vancouver takes it in seven.
Jeremy Wiebe has written for The Hockey Writers and other web sites. Currently residing in Winnipeg, his Twitter is @jstar1973