EDMONTON — This is the best matchup that the Calgary Flames could have hoped for.
They just can’t be thinking that way.
After surviving the qualification round, the Flames will officially open the 2020 Stanley Cup playoffs with Tuesday’s Game 1 against the third-seeded Dallas Stars.
The Stars are stingy. Really stingy.
Scary, though? Not like the other top seeds in the Western Conference.
And no matter what you think of the opposition, the Flames should be riding a bit of momentum after surviving a play-in series against the Winnipeg Jets, their first time on the smiling side of a handshake line since back in 2015.
“Anytime you can defeat a team and move on, you gain that confidence as a group,” said Flames captain Mark Giordano on Monday’s virtual media conference. “For us, we’ve been saying it to you guys all year about how we feel we’re better suited for playoffs. I think we’ve just scratched the surface on that now by winning that play-in round and we’re looking forward to get going here and get into this next series.
“It’s a best-of-seven now against an extremely tough team, but we’re definitely feeling good.”
They should be.
Because of how they’ve played.
And because of who they’re up against next.
Just to be crystal clear, we’re not suggesting that the Stars will be an easy out.
But if you could pick an opponent from among the best of the West, it would be the guys in green, especially since there are question marks about the status of centre Tyler Seguin and go-to goalie Ben Bishop. (Both missed their final round-robin contest, although coach Rick Bowness insists “everyone is healthy” ahead of Game 1, a 3:30 p.m. MT puck-drop in an empty Rogers Place in Edmonton.)
Dallas ranked as the second-best defensive squad in the NHL prior to the pandemic pause, allowing just 2.52 goals per game. The Columbus Blue Jackets were tied for third on that list with the Arizona Coyotes, and we all know how much success Auston Matthews and the Toronto Maple Leafs had against the Blue Jackets’ stifling style.
Thing is, the Stars didn’t do a lot of lamp-lighting at the other end. Despite some top talent, led by the likes of Jamie Benn and Seguin, they averaged only 2.58 snipes per night in the 2019-20. Of the five teams that averaged fewer goals per game, four weren’t even invited to the summer restart.
When the action was halted due to COVID-19, the Stars had 37 victories. The Flames had 36, so close to a saw-off.
The crew from Calgary even owned a slight edge in the regular-season series, winning two of three meetings.
And it’s worth noting that Benn, Seguin & Co. were in a tailspin before the break, having suffered six straight losses. They dropped back-to-back game after being bubbled before a late rally and shootout victory in Sunday’s round-robin capper against the St. Louis Blues. (You can bet a lot of fans in southern Alberta were fired up about that outcome, since it spared a date with the defending champions.)
The Flames, meanwhile, found their groove in that four-game ouster of the Jets. They had 11 different marksmen during that series, which bodes well when you’re about to face such a tight defence.
“For a lot of us on the team, the younger guys, that was our first taste at what winning a round is like, so that was pretty cool,” said Flames alternate captain Matthew Tkachuk, reflecting on the triumph over the injury-riddled Jets and turning his attention to the next task. “We definitely enjoyed it and are happy with it, but it means nothing right now.
“At the end of the day, it’s one round. We wanted it. We expected it out of ourselves. And guys played really, really well. So I think we should be confident going into this next round. But this is a different beast, this team. This is a very, very highly skilled, big team. They can fly, and they’re physical. So it’s going to be a great test for our team.”
That’s what you expect to hear.
The Flames better believe it, too.
Because there is a cautionary tale here.
A year ago, when the Calgarians clinched top spot in the Western Conference, many folks figured they had scored the best possible matchup. After all, they had swept the Colorado Avalanche in the regular season.
We all know how that turned out.
The Flames have been waiting 15 months to change the narrative that they can’t cut it come playoff time.
Their jettison of the Jets was a good start.
“We’re going to try to play exactly the same way,” said Flames head coach Geoff Ward on the eve of their opening-round showdown with the Stars. “There is a confidence level with our team, in terms of how we play. I think they’re extremely comfortable with the way we play, and it comes naturally to them now. So we’re going to be focusing just on getting to our game.
“We’ve been talking about that since the beginning of training camp here after the pause, and we’re going to continue to focus on that. If we can get to our game, we feel like we’re going to be competitive in the series.”
They should be competitive.
They should be confident.
While they can’t — and won’t — say it, there’s a lot to like about this matchup.
“The thing that I’ve seen over the last three or four days is nobody is satisfied with beating Winnipeg and getting into the final 16,” Giordano said. “We’ve gone through enough together, enough losses in the playoffs together, that we’re not satisfied. We want to move on. We want to keep going …
“There are 16 teams left, and Dallas is a team that is in our way to get to the next round.”
Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2020