The back half of April comprises what is, by far, the most compelling portion of the NHL schedule. The 1st round of the Stanley Cup playoffs is a delightful feast of action-driven evenings and late nights when hockey fans can barely manage to catch their breath while the scaled up intensity of postseason play bristles in multiple channels. Keeping an eye on all happenings and storylines is virtually impossible, thus the need to compile reports on the feats taking place across different boards.
This spring I’m aiming to do just that, so after every playoff series reaches its epilogue, I’ll provide a roundup of the aspects that concurred for the end result, regardless of whether we witnessed a routine triumph by a top-seed, a tight seven-game series or an epic upset. To maintain some resemblance of consistency as we move forward, I’ll try to stick to a structure that I believe will allow for a concise, informative dispatch targeted to those that couldn’t follow the matchup in question, but still want to comprehend the outcome.
Hence, I’ll start by objectively pinning down the three key factors that justify the final scoreline, offering the underlying rationale, before electing the best player in the series for each side. Finally, with an eye on the future, I’ll dispense my prediction on the response for a simple question about the future of the team that just got laid off: Will they be back on the same stage next year?
Fifteen best-of-seven series are contested in the Stanley Cup playoffs until the chalice is awarded, and the first to be completed pitted two Pacific Division opponents that seemed to find their stride late in the season. The Calgary Flames entered with a large cloud hanging over their heads, as the Canadian side had failed to secure a win at Anaheim’s Honda Center in 13 years, a string of 25 consecutive regular-season matches, but despite that many – including myself – still expected a evened up encounter. Obviously, it didn’t unfold that way and I’ll try to explain why:
Game 1: Calgary Flames 2 @ 3 Anaheim Ducks
Game 2: Calgary Flames 2 @ 3 Anaheim Ducks
Game 3: Anaheim Ducks 5 @ 4 Calgary Flames (OT)
Game 4: Anaheim Ducks 3 @ 1 Calgary Flames
Brian Elliott sputtered badly
The veteran goaltender was one of the building blocks behind Calgary’s push towards a playoff spot after the All-star break, but he authored a disastrous array of games which effectively submerged his team’s chances of going deep into the postseason. Just 52 seconds into the first game, Ryan Getzlaf’s long wrister found a way past Elliott’s shoulder, and the puck would continue to trickle through his body in virtually every way possible from then on.
An Jakob Silfverberg snap shot from the top of the circles crept below his arm to stand as the GWG in Game 1, and the Swedish winger also whizzed another shot past his tucked-in glove to open the score in Game 2 before Rickard Rakell stuffed the puck from behind the net for a Ducks two-goal lead. Then, in game 3, the 32-year-old found another gear, spewing out a terrible rebound to the front of the crease, right towards the onrushing Nick Ritchie, to wake up the visitors, contributing decisively to their three-goal rally from 4-1 down when a Shea Theodore wrister handcuffed him on the second goal, and finally surrendering the OT winner by deflecting a puck thrown from the boards towards a teammate standing in front, where it ricocheted to the net.
Elliott probably didn’t deserve to start Game 4 with the Flames season on the line, but he did, and responded by giving up another snoozer on a Patrick Eaves attempt from the boards that squeaked in short side. Just 5:38 min into the night, his season was finished as he was mercifully pulled by coach Glen Gulutzan.
Overall, Elliott posted a putrid 3.89 GAA and .880 Sv% in four postseason games and conceded a mediocre 7 goals in just 42 low-danger shot attempts faced, which is absolutely unacceptable for the AHL, let alone the NHL playoffs. The sweep is on him.
Calgary’s top lines controlled the play but couldn’t convert 5 on 5
The Flames scored nine goals in four games and their PP looked sharp throughout, connecting on 6 of 16 chances, but they just couldn’t keep up with the Ducks five on five, at least on the scoresheet. At even strength, the Ducks tallied 10 times to just two by the Flames, and only one of those came from Calgary’s top-six forwards. The Gaudreau – Monahan – Ferland combo squared off almost exclusively against Anaheim’s premium shutdown unit (Cogliano – Kesler -Silfverberg) and ruled the matchup to the tune of 60 CF% and 70 SCF% (12 For – 5 Against) but was unable to hit the twine even once. In their defence, the Flames’ stars can point out the +4 penalty differential aggregated, which contributed to the four goals buried by the opportunistic Sean Monahan on the powerplay.
Meanwhile, the other battle of heavyweights had more balance to it, with the two-way mastery of the Tkachuk – Backlund – Frolik line neutralizing Anaheim’s top guns, Ryan Getzlaf and Rickard Rakell, at large, but failing to tilt the ice in the right direction as the Flames needed. The Backlund unit managed a 51 CF% and created six scoring chances for while allowing just five, but lost 3-1 in goals. Since further down the lineup they couldn’t make up the difference, with the third forward unit tallying once while Anaheim’s fourth-liner Nate Thompson, for example, amassed 2G and 2 A at even strength, defeat proved inevitable.
Anaheim’s defensive depth holds the fort
With lynchpin Cam Fowler sidelined and Sami Vatanen missing in action after Game 1 (plus the long-time absences of Clayton Stoner and Simon Després), the Ducks had to rely on their flaunted defensive farm in key situations and the kids held their ground. Promising offensive-minded blueliner Shea Theodore was paired with veteran Kevin Bieksa 5 on 5 and the duo stood tall under pressure, spitting out a 51 CF% and surviving the negative (7 for – 10 against) scoring chances differential to post a positive +- rating (Theodore ended at +3, Bieksa +5). The 2013 first round pick, who played six playoff games last year, also collected five points on the series, including two goals at 5 on 5 and a couple of assists while anchoring the top PP unit ( 2.57 min PP TOI/GP).
In another pair, postseason greenhorn Brandon Mountour skated alongside Hampus Lindholm and they ended the series without surrendering a single tally at even strength – and watching three pucks fly in on the other end – despite a CF% under 40. The duo still managed to balance out the scoring chances (7-7), but unsurprisingly will enter round two with a sky-high PDO of 113. Montour played a healthy 19:27 min per game, while Theodore soaked up over 20 mins, numbers that Anaheim would certainly like to temper a bit moving forward when Fowler and Vatanen return to top-four duty. Korbinian Holzer, the 29-year-old German defenseman, filled in for Vatanen on his first ever NHL postseason cameo, and also escaped with a neutral +-rating in 14.39 min of nightly action.
Best players in the series
Ryan Getzlaf (Anaheim Ducks)
The Ducks captain set the tone in the series with the early goal in Game 1, finished it off with an empty net tally in Game 4 and, in the meantime, was a workhorse for coach Randy Carlyle, leading all forwards with 22.18 min TOI/GP. The 31-year-old collected a total of 3 goals and 2 assists over the four games, one point less than teammates Corey Perry and Rickard Rakell, but more than enough to deserve the distinction on a series where his team wasn’t bothered too much.
Mikael Backlund (Calgary Flames)
While Sean Monahan’s four goals and one assist sparkle, his dearth of production at even strength knocks him down in favour of Backlund. The impressive two-way pivot spearheads one of the NHL’s most underrated lines, and while they failed to reach the same heights in the postseason, the Swede never stop battling on his 19:48 min TOI/GP. He fired a team-high 14 shots on goal, picked up 3 points, and his excellent shorthanded goal in Game 2 brought the Flames back into contention until a fortuitous bounce gave Anaheim a two-game lead.
Will the Calgary Flames return to the playoffs next year?
Yes, probably. Glen Gulutzan’s team charged up the standings late backed up by solid possession stats and the core group is locked long-term, with Johnny Gaudreau, Sean Monahan, Michael Frolik, Mark Giordano, Dougie Hamilton and TJ Brodie all under contract, at least, until 2020. The only exception is Mikael Backlund, a UFA in 2018 the team can’t afford to lose.
This summer, the Flames have decisions to make on defence with Dennis Wideman, Deryk Engelland and Michael Stone all up for new deals, while retaining UFA Kris Versteeg should be a priority, as the 2010 Stanley Cup Champion pieced together a nice season. Micheal Ferland and Sam Bennett are RFA’s that won’t break the bank to re-sign, while Curtis Lazar and Alex Chiasson’s future needs clarification.
However, the time devoted to that will pale in comparison to the big resolution needed in goal. Both Brian Elliott and backup Chad Johnson are UFA’s, and if Johnson might return to reassume his role, Elliott’s playoff performance definitely sealed his fate in Calgary. The Flames will shop for a goalie and who they settle for will say a lot about their future.
Can they strike a deal with Ben Bishop, the biggest fish expected to be available on the market? Would they look to pry away Marc-Andre Fleury or Jaroslav Halak? Is one of the other free-agents to be (Ryan Miller, Jonathan Bernier, Scott Darling, Steve Mason) the answer they’re looking for? With a few more pieces added around the edges, this could be the difference between a true contender for the Cup in the coming seasons, or a team topping as a perennial challenger for a playoff spot.