If Canada is to have its first Stanley Cup-winning team since 1993, the Calgary Flames might just be the ones to do it.
After a 50-win season, the Flames return to the playoffs with a significant turnaround from missing out in 2021’s North Division. And they’re back thanks to one of their best regular seasons in team history.
The Flames have a trio of 40-goal scorers making up their top line and a goalie who could qualify as a Vezina finalist. They have a stronger than expected defense, with Noah Hanifin and Rasmus Andersson posting career seasons (by a long shot) at 25 years of age. Oliver Kylington, 24, finally broke in with steady play and production.
Andrew Mangiapane played his way into Team Canada consideration before the NHLers were pulled out of the Olympics. Tyler Toffoli was traded for and contributed 11 goals in less than half a season, and then Dillon Dubé made a strong push to the finish, scoring 11 of his 18 goals in the last five weeks of the season.
Their Round 1 opponent is a familiar foe. Calgary and the Dallas Stars last saw each other in the 2020 bubble, with the Stars taking the series in six games and ultimately going to the Cup final. The Flames held 1-0 and 2-1 series leads in that one, and the only thing keeping them from a 3-0 series lead was a last-minute Jamie Oleksiak goal in Game 2. They dropped two one-goal losses in Games 4 and 5 and then, in Game 6, Calgary held a 3-1 lead after the first period that melted away into a 7-3 loss. Season over.
Both teams have different looks and feels to them now, though. The Stars remain a struggling offence, but do have a super line. Their strength remains defence, but it’s not as stout as 2020 and the goals behind them are not as proven. Calgary, meantime, has a new coach, new goalie, revamped offence, and evolving D core.
There’s a bit of revenge on the line in this one. And at a time of season where rest and recuperation is hard to come by, it may be important to point out that Calgary finished the regular season with a three-games-in-four-nights road trip, while the Stars were at home for a week.
Let’s see who starts the fastest on Tuesday.
Good omen: The 111 points posted by the Flames is the most in team history since 1989, when they won their only Stanley Cup.
Bad omen: This was the third time the franchise won at least 50 games in a season. The first was 1988-89, and the second was 2018-19 when they bowed out in Round 1 to Colorado. Nothing is guaranteed and everything is on the line.
The good news is that these Stars aren’t like those Avalanche. Sure, Colorado wasn’t the team they are today three years ago, but they still had the MacKinnon-Landeskog-Rantanen core. They were just young, lacked some depth, but they also added rookie Cale Makar from college just in time for that playoff run. Ya, bit of a game-changer. The 2020 Avalanche were clearly on the rise and geared up that series.
The 2022 Dallas Stars aren’t that; they’re in a weird place. Two years out from an unsuspected trip to the Cup final, but coming off a playoff miss in challenging circumstances, Dallas is this year’s only playoff team with a negative goal differential on the season. There’s some decline in action here. They are not one of the better defences anymore, and some of their veteran scorers just don’t put up great numbers compared to others around the league. Tyler Seguin (49 points in 81 games), Jamie Benn (46 in 82), and Alex Radulov (22 in 71) are now support and depth. This was the worst points pace season for all of them since early in their careers. And while goalie Jake Oettinger some promise for the future and started with some pretty strong stretches, he finished a little slower. He’s not the ace Ben Bishop was in 2020, or the proven reliable backup Anton Khudobin was when he stepped into the starter’s position (Khudobin a .930 save percentage that season).
But, there is still upside. Joe Pavelski remains a force at 37 and paced the team with 81 points, a new career-high. With Jason Robertson (41 goals) and Roope Hintz (37), Dallas has one of the top lines in the NHL today, a flash that the 2020 finalist team lacked. Miro Heiskanen logs nearly 25 minutes a night and is a game-changing defenceman. He was the leading scorer among all players when these two teams met in the 2020 playoffs, posting eight points in six games.
Of course, the Flames have one of the best lines in the game, too, and if that was an award being voted on the Gaudreau-Lindholm-Tkachuk trio may win it. Fast in transition is Gaudreau, solid two-way is Lindholm, and shifty, sneaky, solid is Tkachuk. They complement each other perfectly and all of them set new career highs.
The Flames are not a one-line team either. Toffoli, Calle Jarnkrok and Blake Coleman were all added in the past year. Mangiapane grew into a sniper, Mikael Backlund is still a matchup headache.
And, of course, the Flames have head coach Darryl Sutter. The Jolly Rancher who gets the most out of his players at all times. It’s not a factor to underestimate.
(5-on-5 totals via Natural Stat Trick)
REGULAR SEASON TEAM STATS
Flames X-Factor: Johnny Gaudreau
With 115 points, Gaudreau finishes with the second-best offensive season in Flames history (Kent Nilsson, 131, 1980-81). But Gaudreau’s 90 even-strength points did set a new franchise record, and set him well apart from his 2022 peers around the league. In a contract year no less, and that’s leaving the Flames with some interesting things to consider in the off-season, with Tkachuk and Mangiapane also needing new deals one year before they become UFA age.
The narrative around Gaudreau in his eighth season with the Flames, though, is that he doesn’t elevate in the playoffs. Calgary has won one playoff series with Gaudreau in the lineup, and that was back in 2015 (their 2020 win over Winnipeg technically came in the bubble’s qualifying round). In 30 career playoff games he has 19 points, well off his regular-season career scoring pace.
He is the key to quick transition play on that top line, but defences may be quick to slow speed in the playoffs. Gaudreau has to find a way through. The Flames need him to keep their most important unit chugging. And, quite possibly, Gaudreau’s future as a Flame depends on what he does in these playoffs before free agency comes up in the summer.
Stars X-Factor: Tyler Seguin
No longer a first-line centre, a 40-goal scorer, Seguin is still an important piece of this Stars lineup when you move past the old expectations. He’s back after almost missing all of the last season following surgery and nerve damage in his leg. He’s Dallas’ Bill Masterton nominee in 2022 for accomplishing getting back to the ice at all.
Seguin has never been a big offensive playoff producer at any point in his career, just two goals in 26 games on Dallas’ 2020 Cup final run and 45 points in 88 career playoff games. But to win in the playoffs a team needs more than just one line, especially matched up against an opponent with the kind of depth Calgary has. Seguin will be forced into tough matchups and required to help get some offence going. If there is no support coming from anywhere else in the lineup, it’s hard to see Dallas being able to pull off the upset.
Tuesday, May 3: at Calgary, 10 pm ET (Sportsnet/CBC)
Thursday, May 5: at Calgary, 10 pm ET (Sportsnet/CBC)
Saturday, May 7: at Dallas, 9:30 pm ET (Sportsnet/CBC)
Monday, May 9: at Dallas, 9:30 pm ET (Sportsnet/CBC)
*Wednesday, May 11: at Calgary
*Friday, May 13: at Dallas
*Sunday, May 15: at Calgary