Phase 4 of the NHL Return to Play Plan will see the resumption of games, as the league attempts to accomplish its goal of awarding the 2020 Stanley Cup. Exhibition, qualifier and postseason matches are slated to take place during that time. The 24-team tournament is scheduled to begin August 1, with the Stanley Cup Qualifiers, which will feature 16 teams playing eight best-of-five series. There will also be a round-robin among the top four teams in each conference to determine the seeding for the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
So far we’ve previewed the Edmonton Oilers versus Chicago Blackhawks matchup, the Nashville Predators against Arizona Coyotes and the Vancouver Canucks facing off against the Minnesota Wild. Today, we wrap up the Western Conference with the Calgary Flames versus the Winnipeg Jets.
The Flames occupy the No. 8 seed in the Western Conference after posting a mark of 36-27-7 (.564 points percentage) in the regular season. Calgary bounced back from an 11-12-4 start under former head coach Bill Peters, who resigned shortly after he admitted to using a racial slur towards an ex-player. Geoff Ward, who was serving as an assistant, took over behind the bench and helped the team recover. He guided the Flames to seven straight wins after replacing Peters. Calgary was scoring more (4.00 goals per game) and allowing fewer goals against (2.50 goals-against per game) during that span. The team also had a five-game winning streak from Jan. 2-11 and went 6-3-1 before the 2019-20 season was paused due to coronavirus concerns.
Winnipeg had a shaky start with a record of 6-7-0, but rebounded in November with a mark of 10-3-1 before another slump hit for the next two months with a record of 9-13-3. The Jets managed to right the ship again, though, and went 12-5-2 prior to the shutdown of the 2019-20 campaign to end up with a 37-28-6 record (.563 points percentage) in the regular season and earn the No. 9 seed in the Western Conference. Winnipeg was getting healthier and appeared to be finding their stride after going through some inconsistencies.
The Jets had to adjust to a revamped defense corps, but received great efforts from newcomer Neal Pionk and Josh Morrissey. Up front, Kyle Connor (38 goals, 35 assists) and Mark Scheifele (29 goals, 44 assists) co-led the team with 73 points apiece. Blake Wheeler, who logged some time at center over the course of the year when injuries piled up, accounted for 65 points (22 goals, 43 assists) in 71 matches. Patrik Laine (28 goals, 35 assists) and Nikolaj Ehlers (25 goals, 33 assists) were back on track after down years in 2018-19.
Calgary played one fewer game than Winnipeg and finished with nine fewer goals than the Jets. Matthew Tkachuk was the club’s most consistent producer. He had a team-high 61 points (23 goals, 38 assists) in 69 matches. Johnny Gaudreau (18 goals, 40 assists) and Elias Lindholm (29 goals, 25 assists) were the only other Flames to surpass the 50-point plateau. Mikael Backlund heated up following the coaching change, with 13 goals and 36 points over 43 contests. That put him among the team’s top point generators during that span. It was a tough season for Sean Monahan, but he ranked second on the team with 16 markers under coach Ward. Monahan entered the pause with 22 goals and 48 points in 70 appearances.
In addition to scoring fewer goals, the Flames allowed more goals against than Winnipeg. Calgary surrendered 3.06 goals against per game played (16th in the league), while the Jets permitted 2.83 goals against per game played (10th overall). The play of Connor Hellebuyck, who was named a Vezina Trophy finalist recently, was a major reason behind Winnipeg’s goal prevention success. Only the Chicago Blackhawks finished with a higher expected goals against in five-on-five situations (173.5) than the Jets (165.2). Winnipeg also ranked second in the league in scoring chances against (1,442) at five-on-five. Additionally, the team surrendered the most high-danger scoring chances against (282) at five-on-five. Hellebuyck deserves plenty of credit for stopping the amount of quality chances that the Jets gave up in front of him. There isn’t as much stability or clarity in the crease when it comes to Calgary. David Rittich and Cam Talbot will compete at camp to see who will get the nod in Game 1 versus Winnipeg.
Calgary won’t have the services of Travis Hamonic during the NHL Return to Play Program after the defenseman opted out due to family considerations. Hamonic was second on the team in average ice time per game (21:12) and first on the Flames in shorthanded time on ice per game played (3:07). Calgary will lean on blueliners Mark Giordano, Noah Hanifin and T.J. Brodie. Rasmus Andersson is a good candidate step up in Hamonic’s absence. Trade-deadline acquisition Erik Gustafsson had three assists in seven outings with the Flames after he was acquired from Chicago. He has plenty of power-play upside and stands a good chance to seize a top-six spot on the defense corps. Juuso Valimaki has been taking part at camp and could be an option for the first time this season.
Winnipeg will be without Bryan Little during the Stanley Cup Qualifiers and the Playoffs. He still needs more time to recover after he took an errant puck to the head back on Nov. 5, which resulted in a perforated eardrum and vertigo symptoms. The Jets acquired Cody Eakin from Vegas at the trade deadline for some additional depth down the middle. Winnipeg also landed Dylan DeMelo in a deal with Ottawa and he meshed well with Morrissey in a shutdown role.
The Flames and Jets were playing well going into the break despite some adversity early in the year. Both clubs have the potential to explode offensively and each feature two lines that are capable of taking over a game at any time. However, Calgary’s goaltending is a question mark going into the series, while Winnipeg has a much more stable option in Hellebuyck. He was tied with Montreal’s Carey Price for the most games played (58) and ranked second in the league in starts (56), but the long pause removes the concern of fatigue. The Jets were also improving in front of him prior to the pause. This should be a close series, but Winnipeg’s goaltending does provide the club with a slight edge and it could push them into the next round if the Flames' netminders can't narrow the gap.
Players to Watch:
Sean Monahan (CGY) - Monahan surpassed the 20-goal plateau for a seventh straight season, but his 0.69 points per game was on pace to be his lowest since his rookie year. He was beginning to heat up prior to the pause with five goals and eight points in his last 10 games. The Flames will need more of that if they hope to advance beyond the qualifying round. Monahan is also highly motivated going into the matchup versus Winnipeg following last year’s playoff disappointment.
Andrew Mangiapane (CGY) - Mangiapane had a breakout season in 2019-20 with 17 goals and 32 points in 68 outings. He developed some chemistry with Tkachuk and Backlund. Mangaipane exploded for seven markers and 15 points in 18 matches prior to the pause. If Backlund can pick up where he left off and Tkachuk can continue to be a difference maker all over the ice then Mangiapane has plenty of appeal as a potential X-factor.
Cody Eakin (WPG) - Eakin provided one goal and four helpers in eight matches with the Jets after he was obtained in a trade with the Vegas Golden Knights. He was contributing alongside Laine and Ehlers, which is the position he has been occupying during camp. Eakin has some great under-the-radar upside going into the return to play.
Cam Talbot (CGY) - Talbot was starting to separate himself from Rittich after the calendar turned to 2020. In 14 games played, he posted a 9-3-1 record with a .923 save percentage and two shutouts during that stretch. Rittich had a mark of 7-7-1 with a save percentage of .895 over that span. Talbot also has some playoff experience, including some success with the Edmonton Oilers in 2016-17 when he went 7-6 with a 2.48 goals-against average and .924 save percentage.
Neal Pionk (WPG) - Pionk had a personal best 45 points in 71 games during his first season with Winnipeg. He also had career-highs in assists (39), power-play points (25), power-play goals (three), shots (177) and plus-minus rating (plus-10). Pionk has been a great addition for the Jets and could be an impact player for his new club in the postseason.