The 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs are here! Rather, they’re almost here. Phase 4 of the NHL’s return to play plan begins with the qualifying round and round robin tournament. One of the closer matchups in the West, the Calgary Flames vs the Winnipeg Jets, has plenty of interesting storylines to it.
The two teams faced off during the regular season once, and were set to play again on March 14. The COVID-19 pandemic cancelled their second meeting. The one game they played in late October saw the Jets come away with a 2-1 overtime victory at home. The two teams have a pretty equal team-composition, so let’s take a deeper look at the two.
Calgary Flames vs Winnipeg Jets
Flames Top Six Forwards
There is no denying the offensive power the Flames top-six hold. Johnny Gaudreau and Sean Monahan are one of the league’s best one-two punches. Even though Gaudreau had a much lower production rate from his career-best 95 point season last year, he still put up a respectable 58 points. Combine that with teammate Monahan’s two-way style of play and 48 points, and the two will cause some serious damage to the Jets subpar blue line. Young gun Matthew Tkachuk will surely continue on his high-calibre point production as well. On the top power play unit with Monahan and Gaudreau he scored 19 points.
Going a little further down the depth chart, second-year Flame Elias Lindholm was on a 30-plus goal pace before the season shut down. Forward Andrew Mangiapane played his first full season with the team and put up an impressive 32 points playing. The 23-year-old did that playing primarily on the bottom-six minutes until the last few games. His centre for the last few games, Mikael Backlund, was on his way to notching 50 points on the season. The defensive-minded forward will help defend the run against a speedy line that holds Patrik Laine and Nikolaj Ehlers.
Interim head coach Geoff Ward will have to tweak the team’s system to allow theses guys to play a high-paced style of offense. The key to scoring goals against Winnipeg will be exposing their obvious defensive flaws and forcing them to leave the wings open for their speedy wingers to create passing options.
Winnipeg Jets Defence
The Jets defensive core has a lot of upside, but in terms of immediate impact they are inexperienced and not the most consistent group. Losing veteran winger-turned-blue liner, Dustin Byfuglien took a toll on the team. Trading away Jacob Trouba at the draft for an unproven Neal Pionk might not have been the best move at the time, but it payed off. Pionk had a career year, scoring 45 points in two less games than he played the season prior. Tucker Poolman proved he can play with NHL talent, increasing his average time on ice by five minutes and dishing out
Nathan Beaulieu is looking to prove his stability with the team. The 27-year-old was acquired last season from the Buffalo Sabres. The former 17th overall pick in the 2011 NHL Draft has only scored 20 points once, and will look to prove himself this postseason. Going into free agency this off-season and looking to make an NHL roster should motivate the defender to step up his game and take a bigger offensive responsibility from the blue line. Consider the potential for players like Sami Niku, Carl Dahlstrom, and veteran Luca Sbisa to potentially have a crack at the lineup, and they could very well be a different group come August 1.
Overall the defence will have to play a much more responsible game against a fast-moving Flames rush. If you factor in the four-month break in between the end of the season and the start of the 24 team tournament, the defence has had plenty of time to fine-tune their game and fix the errors they had during the season. With the added excitement to their upcoming games, things are looking up for the blue line.
Connor Hellebuyck was one of, if not the best, goaltender this season in the National Hockey League. A Vezina Trophy finalist, he faced more shots than the other two finalists. Putting up an impressive .922 save percentage behind the defensive group he did is an accomplishment on its own. Combine that with the athleticism and composure of a prime Jonathan Quick, and the Jets have one of the greatest threats to the Flames playoff chances. In previous postseason contests, Hellebuyck has never preformed below a .910 save percentage, and picked up two shutouts during the 2018 playoff run. With him in net, the Jets should have minimal worries about their goaltending.
On the opposing side, the Flames have a decent tandem. David Rittich will likely be the starter for the series against Winnipeg, but Cam Talbot preformed a little bit better than he did in less games played. Where Rittich put up a .907 save percentage, Talbot had a .919. Where Rittich has a negative goals saved above average percentage, Talbot has a positive one. Rittich had a .892 even strength save percentage, and Talbot had just above a .900. It seems that, for every decent reason Rittich should start in the series, Talbot could do just as good. Consider Talbot’s playoff experience as well. During the 2017 playoff run with the Edmonton Oilers, he hosted a .924 save percentage through 13 games, and a 2.48 average. Compare that to Rittich’s zero games in the playoffs, and Talbot has a slight edge. Whoever gets the nod on August 1, they’ll need to play at their best.
Both team’s have a decent offence with lethal scoring pieces throughout their lineup. The blue lines come into question on both ends, but neither of them are outmatched by the other. Goaltending is where the two teams differ the most. With a Vezina finalist in net for the Jets, the Flames will have to move Hellebuyck and the defence around to find the net.
Gaudreau and the Flames will need to pull a rabbit out of their helmets to get their scoring going. The combined power of Kyle Connor, Laine, Blake Wheeler, and Mark Scheifele will be too much for the Flames defence and goalies to handle.
Jets in four games.