It’s usually a sort of spring tradition around the hockey world — talk about a lower-seeded team that nobody wants to face in the opening round of the Stanley Cup playoffs.
In this unprecedented summer restart, perhaps the Calgary Flames fit that profile.
Give them credit — the Flames were impressive in a four-game ouster of the Winnipeg Jets in the first-of-its-kind qualification round. With all due respect to the other play-in survivors in the Western Conference, this is likely the squad that the favourites would rather avoid.
“Right now, with our team, I think the biggest thing is we’re hungry,” said Flames first-line centre and alternate captain Sean Monahan, pacing his posse with six points so far. “We’ve had chances in the playoffs before and we’ve been embarrassed and obviously been knocked out a few times. Right now, you look at our team, every guy is bought in and every guy wants it.
“I think the character of our team has stepped up.”
Advancing through the qualification round — however you classify it, Calgary’s first post-season series triumph since 2015 — is not an insignificant step.
The Flames’ next opponent will be determined Sunday afternoon, and it’s this simple — they’ll meet the winner of a matinee between the St. Louis Blues and Dallas Stars (1 p.m. MT, Sportsnet). Although the action will all occur inside an empty Rogers Place in Edmonton, the other guys will have home-ice advantage in what will be a best-of-seven battle.
The Blues, of course, are the defending Stanley Cup champions and all the key pieces from that run — a list that is headlined by Jordan Binnington, Alex Pietrangelo, Ryan O’Reilly and the once-again-healthy Vladimir Tarasenko — are back in the bid for a repeat.
The Stars seem like a more favourable matchup, especially since they dropped six in a row before the pandemic pause and have lost back-to-back in the bubble. That said, they were the stingiest squad in the Western Conference during the regular season and have a bunch of dudes — led by Jamie Benn, Joe Pavelski and Tyler Seguin — with a history of filling the net against the Flames.
“It doesn’t matter who we play, it will be one heck of a tough series,” promised Calgary’s starting puck-stopper, Cam Talbot. “There are only good teams left.”
Indeed, there are reasons to fear both the Blues and Stars, each able to dodge the play-in round after finishing among the top-four in the regular-season standings.
Thing is, the Flames are a formidable foe, too. From this vantage point, they have serious upset potential.
For starters, they have scoring depth. In fact, every one of their first-liners, second-liners and third-liners tickled twine against the Jets, while Tobias Rieder sniped a shortie and rearguard Rasmus Andersson fired one into an empty net.
“I mean, when you have 11 guys get on the scoresheet … ” said Talbot, no doubt thankful for the run support. “Our best players were our best players (against Winnipeg), but we got contributions from up and down our lineup. Our penalty-kill was really good and our power-play got some big goals, so I think special-teams is going to be huge. But scoring depth, for sure …
“Anytime you can get contributions from everybody, it’s going to be huge, and I think that’s what is going to make us a difficult team to handle moving forward.”
While the Flames still have plenty of top talent, they added some grit and toughness after an early — and easy — exit as a top seed last spring.
They have a dependable defence, especially if TJ Brodie continues to play at the same level he did during the play-ins.
And their go-to goalie is in some kind of groove right now. Talbot didn’t allow a single softie against Winnipeg, posting a splendid 1.51 goals-against average and .947 save percentage.
Perhaps most important of all, the Flames have learned some tough lessons from their past playoff flops and seem — so far, at least — to have turned all that frustration into valuable fuel.
Some will argue they had an easier road due to the Jets’ injury woes, but it’s a positive sign that they refused to ease up, sticking with a crash-and-bang brand that clearly took its toll on the undermanned opposition.
“What’s going to make our team hard is that we’re physical and we have a really good forecheck,” said third-line centre Sam Bennett, who scored twice and racked up a team-high 22 hits in that jettison of the Jets. “We can be hard on the other team’s defence. I think we showed that in the Winnipeg series, and we’re not going to let up for whoever we play next.”
Whoever they play next, the Flames — the eighth seed in the play-ins, now sixth among the remaining squads — will be considered the underdogs.
After finally getting over that first hump, though, this seems like a lesser-lite that could do some serious damage.
They should be feeling good after their showing against the Jets, although over-confidence has been an enemy in the past.
“I thought that was a great series for us — we learned a lot about our team and we played some pretty solid hockey,” Bennett said during Saturday’s Zoom call with media. “But now we’re just looking ahead. We’re going to move on. We played good hockey and now we’re moving on and worrying about the next team, whoever that is going to be.
“It doesn’t really matter to us. We’re a confident group right now.”
Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2020