Nothing is etched in ice, but if the NHL has its way, the 2020 Playoffs will be sometime this summer. Should the league pull it off, the Winnipeg Jets and Calgary Flames will clash in one of the eight best-of-five series in the qualifying round.
When and where that will happen is still anybody’s guess — as is how the teams match up.
The Jets enter as the ninth seed with a 37-28-6 record and 80 points. The Flames come in with a 36-27-7 record and 79 points but earned the eighth seed by virtue of points percentage (.564 to the Jets’ .563). The series winner will advance to the best-of-seven first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs against one of the top four seeds in the Western Conference.
The Only Meeting of 2019-20
The teams met just once during the season, on Oct. 26, when the Jets won 2-1 on an overtime goal from Bryan Little in the Tim Hortons Heritage Classic in Regina.
The teams were scheduled to play twice in Calgary on March 14 and 31 before play was paused due to the COVID-19 pandemic on March 12. So, it’s difficult to compare the two head-to-head.
Players Returning from Injuries?
Each team should see some of their key players return to the lineup after missing time due to injury.
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The Jets would receive a boost if doctors clear Little to play. The talented forward has been out since Nov. 5, when he suffered a concussion and punctured eardrum after being hit in the head by a shot from teammate Nikolaj Ehlers. Defensemen Luca Sbisa and Sami Niku also could be back for the Jets. Sbisa missed 11 games with an upper-body injury, Niku missed 10 due to a lower-body issue.
The Jets also may get an emotional lift if forward Mark Letestu can return. He reportedly has been sidelined since Oct. 15 with a life-threatening heart condition, known as myocarditis, but was set to play for the AHL Manitoba Moose before the NHL hiatus. He was named Winnipeg’s nominee for the Bill Masterton Memorial Trophy by the Professional Hockey Writers’ Association, handed out annually to the NHL player who best exemplifies the qualities of perseverance, sportsmanship, and dedication to ice hockey. (from ‘ALL HEART: Jets’ Letestu nominated for Masterton after life-threatening heart condition,’ Winnipeg Sun, 06/09/2020)
Meanwhile, the Flames are likely to get back defenseman Travis Hamonic, who missed the last 14 games because of an upper-body injury.
Head-To-Head Playoff History
The Jets 2.0 have never played Calgary in the playoffs, but the original Jets (or 1.0) and Flames met in the postseason in 1985, 1986, and 1987. The teams were evenly matched in 1985 heading into their best-of-five clash in the Smythe Division Semifinals. The Jets (96 points) ousted the Flames (94) in four games.
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The following season, Winnipeg posted a 26-27-7 record for 59 points, but still managed to finish third in the Smythe (which shows you how awful the division was).
As you can imagine, the Jets were no match for the 40-31-9 Flames, who swept the division semifinals series then beat the Edmonton Oilers in the division finals and the St. Louis Blues in the Campbell Conference Final before losing the Stanley Cup in five games to the Montreal Canadiens.
Goaltending Gives Jets the Edge
Which team will win the qualifying round? It’s hard to tell given the uncertainty surrounding each club. Both had been playing well before the pause. Winnipeg won all four of its games in March, outscoring the opposition 15-5. Calgary was victorious in three of its four matches that month, notching a 12-8 advantage in goals scored.
However, Connor Hellebuyck unquestionably gives the Jets the advantage between the pipes. He led the NHL last season with six shut outs and 1,656 saves, while his 31 wins and 3,268:33 minutes both ranked second in the league. His 2.57 goals-against average (GAA) and .922 save percentage (SV%) helped the Jets finish with a plus-13 goal differential, ranked fourth in the Western Conference.
Calgary goaltenders, David Rittich (24 wins, 2.97 GAA, .907 SV%, two shutouts) and Cam Talbot (12 victories, 2.63 GAA, .919 SV%, 2 shutouts) aren’t slouches mind you. However, Hellebuyck kept the Jets in contention after the team lost defensemen Dustin Byfuglien, Tyler Myers and Jacob Trouba last offseason.
Prediction: Jets in five.
I’m not related to Phil or Tony, but I have played, coached, scouted, and written about hockey. I’m getting back into writing after teaching elementary school for the past 15 years. Prior to becoming an educator, I covered collegiate and pro hockey for nearly a decade for a New Jersey newspaper. My beats included Princeton University, the Eastern College Athletic Conference, the East Coast Hockey League, and the ECHL’s Trenton Titans. I also covered the New York Rangers’ playoff run in 1997.