The Calgary Flames face a difficult opponent in the Winnipeg Jets as they head into the 2020 Stanley Cup qualifying round. In the matchup, the Jets’ top-heavy offense threatens to overwhelm the Flames’ shaky defensive structure and inconsistent goaltending. If that materializes, Calgary will need to rise to the occasion to compete in a high-scoring series. For that reason, I will highlight three Flames forwards who are X-factor candidates in the qualifying round.
Flames Face-Off with Jets in 2020 Playoffs
Many, including most here at THW, position the Flames as the lesser team by a slim margin in their qualifying-round matchup. This view favours the high-skill offense of the Jets, backed by their elite goaltender, Connor Hellebuyck, and a below-average D-corps. The Flames, on the other hand, are defined by above-average offensive ability alongside middling results on defense and in net.
I, likewise, lean slightly in favour of the Jets in a preview of this matchup, seeing as the Flames consistently had defensive breakdowns against strong offenses in the 2019-20 regular season. In that regard, an attack with stars including Kyle Connor, Mark Scheifele, Blake Wheeler, and Patrick Laine presents a daunting challenge to the Flames.
At the same time, the Flames had mounted a strong offensive push of their own in the regular season’s final weeks, scoring three or more goals in every one of their final 15 games. But here, the unconventional return-to-play format works in favour of the Jets. Notions of momentum or carryover are virtually nonexistent as the NHL returns after and amid inconceivable circumstances. Not only that, but, for several seasons now, the Flames have been notorious for their “slow” starts, which could prove costly in a shortened best-of-five series.
Calgary Flames: 3 Playoff X-Factors at Forward
For the Flames to defeat the Jets, they’ll need their proven performers to remain consistent and keep them in games. Captain Mark Giordano, the defense, and shutdown defensive forwards such as Mikael Backlund and Elias Lindholm will need to neutralize the Jets’ stars. Likewise, David Rittich, who presumably gets the first start in net, will need to deliver performances in line with those that earned him the nickname “Big Save Dave” over portions of the last two seasons.
All the same, the Jets will inevitably generate goals. Will the Flames be able to match the numbers they allow? It may not be the soundest strategy in general, but, in this particular matchup, the Flames would be wise to focus on outscoring rather than out-defending the Jets. To top them in this way, they need the playoff arrival of a candidate who can provide that clutch, extra push. These three forwards are X-factors who the Flames must rely on in their matchup against the Jets.
Sam Bennett: Proven Playoff Competitor
Sam Bennett’s struggles and failure to live up to his high draft selection are well-documented. The 2019-20 regular season was cut short, but, for reference, he had by far his most disappointing offensive season yet, with a stat line of just 8 goals and 4 assists in 52 games. Now, with an irregular playoff format on the horizon and a shot at a multi-round playoff run, Bennett has a chance to right the ship moving forward.
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To his credit, Bennett has always shown up in the playoffs, which seem to bring out the best in him. His career points per game rises from 0.35 to 0.55 during playoff hockey, and he was far and away the most productive forward with an uncharacteristic five points in 2019’s five-game first-round playoff loss to the Colorado Avalanche. Given this history, head coach Geoff Ward shouldn’t hesitate to promote him out of the bottom six should the top line prove unproductive. But even in a bottom-six role, Bennett can be a difference-maker.
He needs to activate his gritty style that punishes and aggravates the Jets defense. Any offense should be seen as a welcome contribution, but—as Bennett has occasionally shown in his career—when he does score, the goals can come in bunches. There’s no better time than now for Bennett to revive his reputation and drive the playoff run once again.
Dillon Dubé: Playoff Breakout Candidate
Dillon Dubé enjoyed quiet success in his rookie season with the Flames, finishing with 6 goals and 10 assists in 45 games. Those numbers may not jump off the page, but Dubé is the type of under-the-radar candidate who could pitch in a few meaningful goals and a handful of points in a best-of-five playoff series.
The 5-foot-11 speedster appears to have secured a long-term role in the Flames’ line-up and has shown promise of offensive upside. He should be a line-up fixture for the duration of the playoffs, barring any major defensive lapses.
But, like Bennett, Dubé appears unlikely to see a promotion from his third-line spot with Derek Ryan and Milan Lucic unless the series quickly gets away from the Flames. With this opportunity in a supporting role, Dubé can still announce his arrival on the stage of playoff hockey when his team needs it the most.
Johnny Gaudreau: Playoff Underperformer
Yes, Johnny Gaudreau once again had a successful season on offense, finishing second on the team in scoring behind only Matthew Tkachuk. All the same, it was a disappointing campaign for the 99-point scorer of last season, who dropped to 18 goals, 40 assists and 58 points in 70 games. More often than usual, Gaudreau in the 2019-20 regular season fell into the trends of his post-season play—where his strengths tend to fade and his weaknesses are exposed.
Where the Bennetts of the NHL are awakened by a physical, unforgiving, and high-stakes “playoff hockey” style, Gaudreau’s shifty puck-carrying and seam passes often get suppressed and give way to turnovers and weak plays come playoffs. Opponents play him tighter and offer neither time nor space. The Avalanche mastered the approach, holding him to a lone assist in the first-round defeat of the 2019 playoffs.
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Gaudreau will likely start the series alongside usual linemates Sean Monahan and Elias Lindholm. Much of Monahan’s success relies on the trends of Gaudreau’s play. Lindholm has proven himself somewhat more self-sufficient, but he’s also at his best when this trio is clicking. But as the 2019-20 regular season wound down, the second line of Tkachuk, Backlund, and Andrew Mangiapane emerged as the team’s trusted scoring line and top-line defensive matchup. Tkachuk has also largely overtaken Gaudreau and Monahan as the face and leader of the team’s forward group.
For these reasons, I identify Gaudreau as the top-six group’s X-factor. Frequently, he must be on his game to allow his linemates to achieve their highest level of success. Moreover, the fabric of the team’s offensive identity shifted over the course of the regular season, meaning expectations are now slightly lower for Gaudreau. The Jets will no doubt still single him out in their defensive game plan, but he’s presented with another opportunity to recover his post-season reputation and get the Flames deep in the 2019-20 playoffs.
The Flames’ Success Depends on Offensive X-Factor
Every Stanley Cup run has its X-factor player. At times, the player can establish himself for the first time in the playoffs, while at other times, he can restate or rewrite his playoff history. The Flames will need a newcomer – Dubé – a proven playoff performer – Bennett – or a playoff underperformer – Gaudreau – to step up against the Jets and get them on their way to best-of-seven battles in pursuit of the Cup.