The last time the Flames made the playoffs was two years ago in the bubble. Their date that year: the Dallas Stars. This first-round matchup is a grudge match and it’s one the Flames are slated to win rather handily.
Calgary, unsurprisingly, enters this series as a big favorite. While that may trigger some bad memories from the last time that was the case — a very disappointing loss in 2019 — the current iteration is very different from that group.
These Flames are older, wiser, more experienced and have seamlessly blended their fast-paced style with a heavy element built for the playoffs. Calgary is the best of both worlds in that regard which is the biggest thing that separates the Flames apart from other contenders.
They’re built for this, and it starts with a series against a weaker opponent, albeit one that isn’t very far removed from their own postseason success.
It was only two years ago that the Stars unexpectedly marched all the way to the Stanley Cup Final. They were eventually thwarted by the Lightning, but their style of play suited them well for the playoff grind. That run started by beating the Flames and Calgary is obviously hoping to flip the script here.
It’s the Flames that have the heavy hockey edge this time around which makes an already imposing team look even scarier for the Stars. This is not a team that Dallas will be able to push around and when that element is gone, skill should prevail — and Calgary has a lot of it.
The Flames are deep at every position and that led to some incredibly strong numbers this season across the board. They look like the league’s most complete team, a testament to Darryl Sutter’s coaching prowess. He maximized and optimized this team’s potential to its fullest and they look like a real contender as a result.
The Flames’ season-wide results in all but three categories shown rank in the top tier. That shows just how complete this team is. Their offensive generation is elite, defense is stout and they have the goaltending to back it up.
The only red flag is how some of their numbers have dropped over the last month. There’s been a slight downturn in their expected goal generation, but you wouldn’t know that by the looks of it since their actual scoring is up, as is their shooting percentage. On the flip side, Calgary’s slightly better at limiting shots as of late, but allowing more quality chances — that is showing on the scoresheet as well.
Will those slim downswings matter in this matchup? Probably not. The Stars’ offensive metrics land them between the middle and bottom of the league. Although, Dallas should have more to show for their efforts, especially over the last month when they’ve managed a lowly 1.93 goals per 60. Now the task is remedying that against a top-notch defense.
Dallas fares better in its own zone than it does offensively, at least, and there have been slight improvements over the last stretch in front of the blue paint — except on the penalty kill. The Stars’ efforts to limit quality chances while short-handed were the fourth-best this season, even though their goaltending didn’t match that level. In the last month, the opposite is true. Calgary’s penalty kill has mostly been better, though over the last month, their goaltending hasn’t.
The Flames may also have the special teams advantage with their power play — as long as their finishing can get back on the right track after falling short down the stretch. The Stars’ problems are below the surface; they have to get back to their levels from earlier in the year, and somehow manage that against this penalty kill.
One of the most intriguing matchups in the entire playoffs comes in this series between two of the best top lines in hockey. Both Calgary and Dallas feasted when their top units were on the ice this season, especially at five-on-five. Seeing them go head-to-head is going to be a serious treat.
Unsurprisingly, it’s the Flames trio that comes out ahead. That shouldn’t shock anyone considering what they did together this season. No line played more than their 964 minutes together at five-on-five and in that time they absolutely torched the league, earning a 63 percent expected goals rate and outscoring opponents 73-31. That’s a mind-boggling number; a plus-42 differential that was 12 better than the next best line. Prior to this season, the record was plus-30 by the Sedins and Alex Burrows in 2009-10. Calgary’s line obliterated that total.
Playing a lot of minutes together certainly helps, but it’s the chemistry and fit of all three pieces that made the line shine. Johnny Gaudreau is one of the game’s best puck carriers, a zone entry magician and an excellent playmaker. Matthew Tkachuk is arguably the game’s best power forward and most well-balanced player — a unicorn that can do it all. Elias Lindholm is a responsible two-way center with a scoring touch. Together, they were a symphony of hockey magic — all scoring over 40 goals on the season. That’s rare. So too is Gaudreau and Tkachuk putting up over 100 points each.
There are some concerns over how well that will translate to the playoffs, mainly because the small-statured Gaudreau has frequently struggled there. But this line looks built to insulate him through the heavier playoff game and allow him to thrive more than he has before. It’s a perfect line and one that will cause fits for any team it plays against.
Dallas is the first one up on the docket and while the Stars have a fantastic top line of their own, it’s not quite at the level of Calgary’s. The Stars’ trio is the fourth-best in the playoffs, but there’s a significant 2.4-win gap between them and the third-best line — Calgary’s.
Like the Flames, the Stars’ top line has chemistry after spending a lot of time together over the last two years. At five-on-five this season, they’re second in the league in minutes played together behind only Calgary’s leading trio.
Each member of this line contributes something to make them click. Down the middle, there’s smooth-skating Roope Hintz who is trusted in all situations thanks to his two-way play. He can be counted on to battle for loose pucks and carry the puck up the ice into the offensive zone with control. Along with his defensive strengths and goal-scoring ability, his vision helps him find openings to dish to his teammates.
On his right, there’s veteran Joe Pavelski, whose game doesn’t seem to be impacted by Father Time as one would expect. In fact, he actually hit career highs with 81 points in all situations — his best scoring performance since earning 79 points in 2013-14. This year, it’s his five-on-five scoring rate (2.48 points per 60) that stands above the rest. It’s not fueled as much by goal scoring as it has in years past; instead, he’s earning more primary assists compared to years prior. Pavelski’s shot rate is down as well, though he can still be spotted scoring, especially with the help of his hand-eye coordination for tips and deflections in the net-front area.
Hintz and Pavelski aren’t the only dual threats on that line. There’s also Jason Robertson who is emerging as a star in this league after a strong rookie season and even more outstanding second year. The winger netted an impressive 41 goals in 74 games and 79 points. Quite a bit of that scoring — about 68 percent — was earned at five-on-five. While his linemates had a slight edge in their shot locations, he led in volume and finishing — something that his improved patience made all the more dangerous. But that’s not all he could contribute; smart passing plays set up his teammates, challenging defenders even more.
Together the Stars’ top line generated over 60 percent of the expected goals while they were on the ice at five-on-five, creating shots both off the rush and, while sustaining pressure off the cycle, outscoring their opponents at a slightly lower rate. As excellent as they are, it still does fall short of Calgary’s best.
Unfortunately for the Stars, the advantages for the Flames don’t end there — they’re only just beginning. It’s not just the top line where Calgary is stronger, but the entire middle six as well. The Stars are a one-line team going up against a relatively deep top nine.
The Flames used to be a lot thinner up front, but they made some big adjustments this year going back to last offseason’s signing of Blake Coleman. His 33 points may not leap off the page, but he’s delivered as promised as a strong forechecking two-way force at five-on-five — one with plenty of championship pedigree. He plays the game hard which helped him earn a 57 percent expected goals rate this year with a positive impact at both ends of the ice.
Calgary furthered that quest for scoring depth with its midseason acquisition of Tyler Toffoli, one of the better scoring wingers in the league. He was incredible last season for Montreal, a career year, but saw his stock fall this year after the Canadiens plummeted to the bottom of the standings. Unfortunately for Calgary, his game hasn’t really improved much with the Flames as he scored just 23 points in 37 games while earning a 48 percent expected goals rate, one of the lowest marks on the team. That’s a bit concerning if the Flames have aspirations of going deep, but Toffoli has the talent to turn things around — especially if they match him up with a better passer. Calle Jarnkrok was the final piece added right at the deadline and he’s a decent and versatile forward who fits just fine on the team’s third line.
The big thing to worry about for the Stars in Calgary’s middle six is not who the team brought in to bolster depth, but who was already there: Andrew Mangiapane. The unheralded winger had a monstrous breakout season where he scored 35 goals, 23 of which were at five-on-five. Factor in his ice time and Mangiapane’s season looks all the more impressive. He scored 1.39 goals per 60 this year at five-on-five, good for sixth in the entire league. That’s a nice weapon to have in your arsenal on the second line, but he’s more than just a scorer. He’s a seriously effective two-way player who drives play well and suppresses chances at a high rate. Paired with Mikael Backlund, the Flames have a strong shutdown duo after the top line.
The issue is that after Dallas’ top line, there isn’t much else worth shutting down.
As overwhelming as the Robertson line can be, driving offense to the quality areas puts their expected goal generation 35 percent above league average, while allowing little back — it’s completely different when they’re on the bench. Dallas’ expected goal creation sinks 12 percent below average without them.
The Stars’ second line of Jamie Benn, Tyler Seguin and Denis Gurianov is more comparable to the Flames’ third line. They’ve outscored expectations slightly, but usually don’t tilt the ice in Dallas’ favor. Seguin’s offensive impact is the worst of his career this season. Benn’s been on the decline for some time and while he can still play the net-front role, his scoring rate was a career low. And Gurianov’s play hasn’t threaded the needle on either end of the ice.
It gets even more dire down a line, with a trio that brings no offense to the table. The Stars’ expected goal generation is 28 percent below league average at five-on-five with them deployed. Michael Raffl, Radek Faksa and Luke Glendening are tasked with going up against top competition, and the results look closer to a one-dimensional defensive shell. The scoresheet doesn’t paint a more positive picture with Dallas getting outscored 7-16 while they’re on the ice.
The fourth line isn’t exactly exciting, but Vladislav Namestnikov is at least a steady two-way presence who can do the dirty work to facilitate plays. Alex Radulov’s dropoff in scoring has been harsh, and there’s little finishing touch at this point in his career. In 71 games, he’s scored just four goals when he’s expected to have another 10 in all situations.
Defense is where things get closer, but the Flames’ top four look more full and imposing. Calgary has two strong pairs that don’t really get deserved credit for how they’ve played this season. Very few teams are that strong from one-to-four and that allowed the Flames to evenly split the matchup duties between the quartet.
On the top pair, Noah Hanifin and Rasmus Andersson are two defenders the model believes to be star level, but they don’t get much hype about being legitimate number-one backs. The duo led all Flames defenders with a 57 percent expected goal rate and strong results at both ends of the ice. They’re the more offensive-minded pair of the two, with Andersson hitting the 50-point mark thanks to his work on the power play and Hanifin coming close as the Flames’ best producer at five-on-five. Both players are very well-rounded.
The other pair features a more classic mix of puck-mover and defensive stalwart. Chris Tanev is a shutdown defender extraordinaire and though he didn’t quite reach last year’s heights, he was still extremely impressive in his second season as a Flame. He again led the team in expected and actual goals against per 60, proving last year’s renaissance was no fluke. Tanev is at his best as a stay-at-home type next to a pure puck mover and Oliver Kylington fit like a glove in that role. He was this year’s biggest surprise, a strong breakout where he solidified himself as a top-four-caliber defenseman. Kylington’s best asset is his ability to carry the puck up ice and he was among the league leaders in carried exits this season. It helps to play with Tanev who’s great at retrieving the puck in the defensive zone. The pair just works so well together and both players were a shade under the top pair in terms of expected goals at 56 percent.
Dallas has the most valuable defender of this matchup in Miro Heiskanen, but doesn’t have the overall strength in their top pair that Calgary does. Heiskanen has X-factor potential in this series for the Stars, given his two-way impact. The team is likely counting on him to rise to the occasion in the playoffs as he did during their last go. He was pacing closer to a four-win-caliber defender during that run.
Heiskanen has a positive influence on his team’s quality-chance creation at five-on-five as well as their shot limitation. The latter is helped by his ability to hold the blue line and stop opponents from generating scoring chances off the rush. Plus, the Stars’ number one can retrieve pucks from his own zone to turn play around and exit with control. That’s why he’s leaned on in crucial situations of a game. Defensively, he holds one of the largest impacts of any defender and that drives much of his value.
To round out that top pair, there’s Ryan Suter who joined Dallas as a free agent after being bought out by the Wild. Together, the Stars are a much better team offensively, and that exceeds what they allow against.
Below them, it’s Esa Lindell and John Klingberg manning the second pair. Lindell is defense-first which is why he’s clicked with a defender known for his puck-moving abilities. The lefty was leaned on while the team was without Heiskanen, and he elevated his game to meet the task. Things were a bit more complicated for Klingberg thanks to his impending expiring contract. His game slipped at points during the season, and his usage matched that. But the Stars opted to keep him as a rental instead of looking elsewhere to fill the gap that a trade would lead to. Through the season, in combined minutes together at five-on-five, the Lindell-Klingberg pairing actually allowed more against than they created. That could prove costly if they can’t bring more oomph on both ends against Calgary.
In net, the edge also belongs to Calgary where Jacob Markstrom is more experienced and has a stronger pedigree than Jake Oettinger. His first year in Calgary left a bit to be desired, but he more than made up for it this year with a terrific bounce-back campaign — the best of his career. Markstrom had a sparkling .922 save percentage en route to saving 16 goals above expected, the sixth-best mark in the league. He thrived in Sutter’s system and that’s what makes Calgary extra scary this year. It’s not just a stingy defense that teams need to deal with, it’s the guy behind them too. Markstrom is one of the best goalies in the league and that, combined with one of the best team defenses, is a tough wall to penetrate.
The Stars had goalie options to start the season, but Oettinger took over in net in November. Through a total of 48 games, he earned a .913 save percentage, while just finishing above average with half a goal saved above expected. While he doesn’t have as much goal support when the top line isn’t in front of him, he doesn’t face the toughest workload back in his own end. To start the year, he wasn’t as strong in front of that workload. But he’s had better results in the second half of the season, especially when it’s mattered the most. His performance against the Golden Knights in a potentially season-altering matchup was evidence of that, where he saved 1.3 goals above expected and “stole” the game for his team. That’s the level they’re going to need from him on a consistent basis now. Unlike the start of the season, there aren’t many options behind him if he falters. With injuries in mind, there’s really only Scott Wedgewood who has been fine as a backup since the deadline, but ideally won’t be needed in an expanded role from that.
The Bottom Line
The Flames are very deserved favorites in this one and it’s difficult to see the Stars coming out ahead — Calgary is just better across the board. Better stars, better forward depth, better defensive depth, better goalie. It all led to better results this year and that should continue in this playoff series.
The Stars are not an easy out by any means and they have stars of their own that can elevate their games to high levels when needed. If Oettinger gets hot and someone like Heiskanen takes over, the series could get interesting in a hurry.
But in a lot of ways, the Flames just do what the Stars do much better. An underdog has a chance to take down a favorite if it can exploit a weakness, but the Flames are low on those — especially in ways that Dallas can threaten.
The Flames are a complete team and this is their series to lose.
Data via Evolving Hockey, Natural Stat Trick, HockeyViz, Hockey Stat Cards and NHL
(Top photo: Brett Holmes / Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)