Calgary Flames Round 2 Playoff Preview: The Battle of Alberta

After a thrilling Game 7 victory over the Dallas Stars at the Scotiabank Saddledome on Sunday night, the Calgary Flames have their next opponent in sight: their No. 1 rivals in QE2.

The Edmonton Oilers also advanced to the second round with a victory in Game 7 and will travel to Calgary for Game 1 tomorrow night.

This season has been incredibly fortuitous for both Alberta teams, with Calgary and Edmonton finishing first and second in the Pacific Division. Now the Flames, with the home advantage, will be looking to do something they haven’t done since 2004: move past the second round of the playoffs. The Oilers last made it past the second round in 2006, but advanced to the second round in 2017.

The Flames have the statistical advantage when you look at the regular season as a whole, but since Jay Woodcroft took over as head coach of the Oilers, things have been different in Edmonton. And, with arguably the two best players on the planet on the other side, all bets are off.

It will be a huge series for both teams, and an even bigger one for the province as a whole. All eyes will be on Alberta, and this series is sure to live up to expectations. Let’s break it down.

The Oilers Offense

Up front, it’s obvious the Oilers are led by Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl. Both superstars are arguably the two best players on the planet and are true generational talents. But, this iteration of the Oilers is much, much deeper than the two big guns.

New additions to the team this year – Zach Hyman and Evander Kane – provided invaluable secondary scoring for the Oilers. Add Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Kailer Yamamoto and Jesse Puljujarvi, and you have one of the best attacking groups in the league.

That’s not to say the band haven’t had their struggles, though. Only Hyman and Nugent-Hopkins have managed to break the 50-point mark in the regular season, and only Hyman, Yamamoto and Kane have scored 20 goals. It’s been a work in progress for the Oilers up front, but when you’re led by such incredible forwards, you can’t really complain.

Overall, the Flames are up against the best player in hockey with the best line in hockey. The top line of Johnny Gaudreau, Elias Lindholm and Matthew Tkachuk helped put the Flames past the Stars in the first round, and will no doubt be considered offensive in this series. It remains to be seen how they compare to the big dogs of the Oilers.

Either way, there’s a lot of firepower in this series. McDavid was the NHL’s leading scorer, Gaudreau second, Draisaitl fourth and Tkachuk eighth.

In the first round of the playoffs, it was exactly what you could expect. McDavid led the league with 14 points in seven games, Kane leads players still in the playoffs with seven goals, and Draisaitl has five goals and nine points. The usual suspects were back in the first round against the Los Angeles Kings, and the Flames will have to pay close attention to those players in the second round.

The Oilers’ power play was their number one weapon and should be front and center for both teams; for the Oilers, it’s to keep doing what they’ve been doing, and for the Flames, it’s to stay out of the box at all costs. In the regular season, the Oilers’ power play ranked third overall, running at a 26.0% clip. McDavid and Draisaitl ranked first and second in power-play points with 44 and 41 respectively. This power play is absolutely deadly and if the Flames are going to win this series, they have to be disciplined.

A big X factor will be the health of Draisaitl, who according to reports is not at 100% and is playing with some kind of injury. Having a few days off between sets will be extremely helpful, but will that be enough to cure what’s hurting him right now?

In the back, the Oilers have legit guns. Young Evan Bouchard burst onto the scene this season, stealing his first power-play duties from Tyson Barrie. He had an incredible breakout campaign with 12 goals and 43 points, good for the team’s fifth-leading scorer. Barrie is still an offensive threat and has seven goals and 41 points this season. And to top it all off, Darnell Nurse had another solid season with nine goals and 35 points.

Overall, though, the Oilers have gotten 39 goals from their defense this season, and just 29 at 5-on-5. blue line attack.

Head-to-head this season, the Flames have the slight advantage in goals (17-16), but it’s much more lopsided at 5-on-5 where the Flames hold a 14-7 advantage. That Oilers power play has been a major factor so far. In terms of stats, the Flames were the far best team in the season series. Here are Calgary’s total stats against Edmonton from the season series courtesy of NaturalStatTrick.com.

HR % FF% FCS % HDCF % GF% xGF%
57.38 58.10 59.30 57.75 66.67 57.54

The Flames literally led in every category, by a wide margin. An interesting one is unblocked shot attempts, otherwise known as Fenwick, where the Flames hold a very impressive 58.1 percent share. This is known to be a good indicator of playoff success, and if the trend continues, the Flames have a clear advantage. Other key metrics are high danger chances and expected goals where the Flames also have big leads in both categories.

The Oilers defense

The Oilers are definitely more of an offensive team than a defensive team. After Woodcroft took over, they made serious progress at 5-5, but are still much further behind the Flames in just about every way. Per 60 minutes, the Oilers have allowed 54.38 CA in the regular season under Woodcroft, who ranks 16th in the NHL (out of 39 team and coach combinations). By comparison, the Flames allowed 50.61, good for third in the NHL. Again, that’s per 60 minutes, so that adjusts for fewer games coached by Woodcroft versus Sutter.

Under Woodcroft, they climbed to ninth in Corsi shares in the NHL and in turn became one of the best teams to limit scoring chances and high-risk chances against. Still trailing the Flames, but the Oilers are no longer outdone on the defensive end of the 5-on-5 game.

The Oilers’ main concern on the defensive end is their numerical inferiority. This season, he’s ranked 17th in the NHL and has run just 79.4 percent. For reference, the Flames had the sixth best penalty kill at 83.2%.

The Oilers defense certainly has responsibilities. Duncan Keith and Barrie specifically tend to allow more scoring chances than they create, and this just hovers around the balance. Keith has also been on the wrong side of a few key playoff games, and maybe that’s how the Flames can break through and try to match the Oilers offense.

Similar to offense, the biggest X-factor in defense is the health of a cleats defender, this time from the Flames side in Chris Tanev. It is suspected that Tanev will be out for more than one game, which will put immense pressure on the Flames defense corps to stop McDavid and Draisaitl. Thankfully, Michael Stone stepped in and did a great job on the blue line, but losing Tanev is a blow.

Rasmus Andersson and Noah Hanifin’s best couple is definitely the show’s class. The 102-point pairing has been incredible all season and in the first round, and will carry most of the load for the Flames.

The nurse will be a big factor for the Oilers and will certainly be sought after for a physical punch. The Flames will have to control their emotions since Nurse is one of the toughest players in the NHL.

Goalkeeper Comparison

I also said this before the last series, but that’s where the ice should tip in favor of the Flames. Jacob Markstrom is a Vezina finalist this season and has had one of the best campaigns by a Flames goaltender in a very long time. He was terrific at 5-on-5, solid on the penalty kill and gave the team a chance to win every time he was between the posts.

Jake Oettinger got all the praise in the first round, but Markstrom was right there with him. He made several incredible saves to keep the Flames in the series, and was a big reason the Flames only needed to score three goals to win Game 7.

The Oilers turned to Mike Smith in net, and he was really, really good in the first round against the Kings. Oettinger led with 14.34 goals saved above expectations in the first round, but Smith and Markstrom are right there at No. 2 and No. 3 respectively.

Smith is risky and has been pointed out as either playing the lights or being absolutely terrible. It remains to be seen which version the Oilers will get in the second round. Here are comparisons between the two goaltenders from HockeyViz.com.

Markstrom has been the top goaltender this season, but faces another tough game in the other territory. Breaking it down a bit further, Smith has a weakness the Flames will surely be looking to exploit.

Markstrom has more saves than expected on all shot types this season, while Smith has a distinct weakness on wrist/snap shots. The Flames are a team that almost exclusively uses this type of shooting, so maybe that will make a difference here. With snipers in Lindholm, Andrew Mangiapane, Tyler Toffoli, Gaudreau and Tkachuk, the Flames could have the advantage to beat Smith.

The advantage goes to Calgary

It’s not as lopsided as we thought last series, but it looks like the Flames have the edge over the Oilers.

Offence: Oilers
Power play: Oilers
Defense: flames
Penalty kill: flames
Goalie : flames

I’ll never bet against McDavid, but if the Flames can stick to their system and do to the Oilers what they did to the Stars, they should emerge victorious in this series. Either way, this will be a series we will all remember for a very long time.

The puck will fall tomorrow night – let’s see who will draw first blood in the battle for Alberta.

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