Prior to the playoffs kicking off with five games last night, NHL.com collected 19 of their experts to make their predictions of every series in round one. It wasn’t exactly a love-in for the Calgary Flames.
Among the experts, 16 picked the Anaheim Ducks to move onto the second round, with only three believing the Flames would pull off the upset.
— Bill Price (@BillPriceNHL) April 11, 2017
For those who follow the team, this shouldn’t exactly come as a surprise, though. Even having three prognosticators picking Calgary to move on might come as a bit of a shock, considering how the Flames have fared against the Ducks (particularly in Anaheim) over the past decade.
So, with puck drop of game coming tonight, what exactly will the Flames need to do to play David to Anaheim’s Goliath?
Don’t Take the Bait
It sounds simple, but it really is. The Flames need to play their own game, and stop trying to beat Anaheim at theirs.
The Ducks are bullies. That isn’t a criticism, it’s an effective way to play. The Boston Bruins won a cup off of that style just a few years ago, and Anaheim is certainly capable of doing the same.
For a prime example of how to beat this sort of team, look no further than those big, bad Bruins. Over the past 15 seasons, the Bruins have faced off against the Montreal Canadiens six times, and more often than not as the higher seed. Yet, despite typically being able to bully teams around, and usually heading into matchups as the favourite over the smaller, faster Canadiens, Montreal walked away winning four of those six series. Each time, it was done by ignoring the Bruins’ attempts to get under their skin, and instead focusing on beating them with their speed.
To prove it, look at the Ducks’ record this season against teams who rely on using their speed to beat you. Anaheim went a combined 1-7-1 against the Pittsburgh Penguins, Dallas Stars, Florida Panthers and Columbus Blue Jackets this year. If the Flames can learn from these teams, they might just have a chance.
It’s a cliché, but you can’t hit what you can’t catch. The Flames must use their speed and transition game in order to keep the Ducks on their heels, and stay away from the rough stuff. The more often we see angry scrums after the whistle, the less likely Calgary is to win the series. It’s that simple.
As Always, Between the Pipes
Looking over at the Flames’ opponent, there are some obvious similarities in both teams’ experiences in net this year.
Each team saw their presumed backups enjoy some surprising success during the season, which led to both Jonathan Bernier and Chad Johnson starting more than 35 games this year, well ahead of what might have been expected before the season.
Since March 1, Elliott sits fourth in the NHL in wins, and in the top ten in both save percentage (.926) and goals against average (2.24). Meanwhile, while Gibson has only played four games since coming back from injury in March, his .936 save percentage and 2.01 goals against average since Feb. 1, are both top five in the NHL.
This series could ultimately be decided in the matchup between Gibson and Elliott, and there isn’t much to separate them. While Gibson has only six career playoff starts to Elliott’s 37, both have performed similarly in their postseason careers. Solid, but unspectacular.
Should Elliott be able to take his game to the level it was during the Flames’ ten game winning streak, he may just be able to steal a game or two, and turn the tide of this series.
The Ingredients are There
Boiling this down, the simple fact is that the Flames absolutely must win one of the first two games in Anaheim. Considering their history with this Ducks team, returning to Calgary in an 0-2 hole would almost certainly spell the end to their season.
But there is hope for Flames fans. Boasting what has been arguably the league’s top defensive pairing, superior underlying possession numbers, and the NHL’s best penalty kill over the past month, there are plenty of reasons to like the Flames in this series. The Ducks have proven susceptible to teams that play with speed, and Calgary is more than capable of playing that game.
Once the puck drops tonight, the history between these two teams will only affect the flames if they let it. Ignoring the headlines, playing their game, and stealing a game in Anaheim could set the Flames up for a surprising upset.