In The Art of War, famous philosopher Sun Tzu declared that every battle is won before it is ever fought. The phrasing refers to savvy warriors choosing to engage in battle on when the situation is advantageous to them. In the context of the Stanley Cup playoffs, National Hockey League clubs rarely get to choose their battles, but often prefer to play on home ice.
For the Calgary Flames, there are a few reasons why they would prefer to maintain home ice advantage throughout the playoffs. Some of the reasoning lies with some of their team’s attributes and some rests with how they match up against potential playoff opponents.
Maximizing Their Stars At Home
Flames head coach Bill Peters recently quipped following a game that the Flames are successful when their best players play like their best players. In previous seasons, the Flames were a rather top-heavy group that was incredibly reliant on their top players to have success. While they’re a deeper team this season, their best players are still on their top two forward lines – Johnny Gaudreau, Sean Monahan, Elias Lindholm, Matthew Tkachuk, Mikael Backlund and Michael Frolik – and top two defensive pairings – Mark Giordano, TJ Brodie, Noah Hanifin and Travis Hamonic.
Simply put, when the Flames are able to put their best players in advantageous situations they’re more likely to fill the net. The club has scored 149 goals (4.26 per game) at home compared to 106 goals (2.94 per game) on the road. They play a tighter style of hockey on the road, but the team has been very effective playing a speed-based game at home that seems to accentuate the strengths of their key players. In fact, 10 of the team’s 13 games scoring six or more goals have come on home ice while some of their most impressive individual feats have come on home ice – including Gaudreau’s six point game followed by a five point performance from Tkachuk.
The 2018-19 @NHLFlames have marked just the fifth instance since 1995-96 of a team witnessing five-point outings in back-to-back contests.
— NHL Public Relations (@PR_NHL) March 16, 2019
The Flames have been one of the NHL’s top teams on home ice because Peters and his staff have been very effective at finding ways to get the most out of their stars – particularly often utilizing Backlund’s shutdown line against the other team’s top players and putting out Gaudreau’s top trio out against the other side’s second or third line. Finishing first in the Pacific Division and Western Conference would allow the Flames to potentially have home ice advantage in the first three rounds of the post-season, and give them more opportunities to squeeze more goals out of their top two lines.
A Clearer Road to the Conference Final
The Flames key players are highly skilled, but not exactly gigantic. When the post-season begins, games often turn into trench wars. Teams who have the ability to protect their star players with home ice often have the easiest time winning series and helping avoid wearing them down with heavy match-ups. In this context, the Flames’ apparent desire to avoid finishing second in the Pacific Division bracket makes a lot of sense.
- Winning the Pacific Division would line the Flames up with the second wildcard team in the first round, most likely one of the Arizona Coyotes, Minnesota Wild or Colorado Avalanche. Tough teams, for sure, but not terrifying. If the Flames manage to advance in this scenario, they face the winner of a likely series between the San Jose Sharks and Vegas Golden Knights – a match-up that would be expected to be fierce and lengthy, leaving a battered survivor to face the Flames in the second round (with the Flames holding home ice advantage).
- If the Flames finish second in the Pacific Division, they most likely match up with the Golden Knights. After adding Mark Stone at the trade deadline, the Golden Knights have prove to be a fast, skilled and deep hockey club – and Stone’s addition functionally gives them two top lines. They would undoubtedly be a massive challenge for a young Flames team – both physically and emotionally – and if the Flames survived that match-up, there’s a good probability that they would be worn out for a second round series with the Sharks that they would play primarily on the road.
The Flames have had their hands full with the Sharks and Golden Knights in recent years – they’ve yet to win a game in T-Mobile Arena. Winning their division would allow them to both avoid facing both of them in consecutive playoff rounds, and allow them to delay facing either of them until after a potential Sharks/Golden Knights first round series – a pair of circumstances that would give the Flames as much of an advantage as they could muster.
Finishing Strong Crucial to Going Far
The Flames are a good hockey club this season; their performance on the ice and in the standings is the best they’ve had in nearly 30 years, and the team is potentially poised for long-term success. But long term success isn’t a given, so it’s incumbent upon them to do what they can to win the Pacific Division and finish atop the Western Conference standings to get as much as they can out of this season’s group.
If the Flames have dreams of going far into the Stanley Cup playoffs – or even having a parade – capturing home ice and playing up to three series where they can choose their match-ups and decide who their starts play against would be a critical part of their success.
Ryan Pike has covered the Calgary Flames and the NHL Draft extensively since 2010 as a Senior Writer for The Hockey Writers and Senior Contributing Editor of FlamesNation.ca. A member of the Professional Hockey Writers Association, he lives in Calgary.