For the second time in three seasons, the Calgary Flames are locked into a Stanley Cup playoff spot. Regardless of who they are matched up with in the opening round they’re likely to be in tough. Here are three aspects of the Flames’ team game that they’ll need to shore up if they want to survive the opening round of the playoffs.
The Flames are one of the very best teams in the National Hockey League when they get a lead. By percentages, they’re the second-best team in the NHL when leading after the first period and the best team when leading after the second period. When they get a lead, they’re a confident team that can lock things down once they get a goal and feel confident in their offensive game. Moreover, a lead allows them to maintain their defensive structure in all three zones.
When the Flames get down a goal or two, they open up their structure a bit and arguably freelance more than they should. Rather than utilizing structure and their teammates, players try to do everything on their own – which often leads to turnovers, odd-man rushes and further bloodletting. Calgary’s extremely rough January was punctuated by a series of games where they gave up sizable early leads and made things worse by opening up too much in an attempt to claw their way back. Especially against the West’s top dogs, the Flames need to get on the board early and play their game for a full 60 minutes.
Calgary have a really strong top two lines (Gaudreau – Monahan – Ferland and Tkachuk – Backlund – Frolik) and a very effective first defensive pairing of Mark Giordano and Dougie Hamilton. Aside from some nice performances from Sam Bennett, Kris Versteeg and T.J. Brodie, every other aspect of the Flames lineup has some vulnerabilities. When the Flames are at home, they can control match-ups and do enough damage with their top guns on the ice to be able to shelter their lesser lights a bit. However, they’re extremely vulnerable to tough match-ups on the road.
Case in point? Anaheim frequently victimized the Flames fourth line (Matt Stajan, Lance Bouma and Troy Brouwer) during their recent pair of meetings, which could provide a handy preview of the Flames post-season undoing. They’ll need to either deploy their bottom six more effectively, or get more out of them when the playoffs begin. That really puts the pressure on Michael Stone to maintain his level of play alongside Brodie, and for Brouwer to recover from what’s been a really rough season for the free agent signing.
The Flames’ top guns are good enough to feast on the other team’s depth players. Their lesser lights are likely to give up a few goals to the other team’s top guns. That means that special teams are going to be incredibly important during the playoffs. The Flames have consistently been one of the most penalized teams in the entire NHL all season. That puts the onus on their penalty kill to be effective and for their power play to take advantage of the chances that they do get. With their lineup likely playing for the tie at even strength, the difference between them playing into the second round or booking tee times for late April could be their power play and penalty kill getting hot at the right time. Even more than their top players, the performances of depth players such as Alex Chiasson, Kris Versteeg and Brouwer on special teams units could make or break the Flames’ post-season.