Isn’t it just wonderful? How much better could it get for the Flames right now? They gave a beat down to the hated Vancouver Canucks in the playoffs, advancing for the first time since the magical 2003-04 season. However, the series didn’t go as scripted. While many were expecting Gaudreau-Monahan-Hudler to steal the show, the spotlight went to those who we least expected to be the x-factors in the series. Without their primary scorers performing well, how did the Flames power past the Canucks? We have a few reasons:
1. Jonas Hiller (mostly)
Besides a rough start to game six, Hiller was probably the savior for the Flames; had it not been for him, the series may have been decided in six games or fewer in Vancouver’s favour. At all situations, Hiller faced 159 shots, saving 148 of them for a .931 SV%. At even strength, he faced 134 shots, saving 125 for a .933 SV%, including an even strength shutout in game four.
The series was mostly Good Jonas instead of Bad Jonas, and what a difference it made. We already discussed it earlier in the week, but the points still ring true. Hiller’s performance kept the Flames in games they probably shouldn’t have been in, notably game five. With Karri Ramo questionable coming off of an injury, it was incredibly important that Hiller bring his best, and that’s why he’s going to be facing his former team next series.
2. Vancouver shot themselves in the foot
One of the overriding narratives for the series was the coaching battle, and how each team would try to counterbalance the firepower of the other. Bob Hartley and the Flames had to find a way to shut down the deadly Sedin twins, who were succeeding against a surprisingly ineffective first line. Luckily, Willie Desjardins himself provided the solution by reducing the Sedins’ ice time, playing his weaker, mismatched bottom lines.
Henrik and Daniel Sedin were in the top five corsi players for their team at 5v5 even strength, but were at the bottom of the table for ice time. For games one and two, the Sedins were in the bottom five for even strength ice time. Desjardins let them play more in the crucial games three and four, but they were still somewhere around the middle, not enough time to make a massive difference. The leash was taken off in the final two games, but it was too late.
Maybe it’s a damning reflection of how Vancouver’s roster is built. The team is essentially the Sedins, a pair of solid, yet cursed goalies, a pair of good defencemen, and a bunch of spare parts. Despite the pre-existing limitations Desjardins had, especially with the injury to Alex Burrows (somehow a top line winger), he did not do a good job deploying his players. Whenever Chris Higgins gets more playing time than the Sedins, it’s a bad omen.
3. They were forced to play Calgary’s game
If we compare the two teams, it is obvious that Calgary is the bigger, stronger team compared to Vancouver. While Vancouver certainly has more top six skill, the Flames out-muscled them, winning the hits battle 162-118.
While the analytics community, including us here at M&G, tend to frown upon excessive hitting and shot-blocking, the grit was certainly appreciated during this series. This is purely based off of the eye-test and I have no statistical proof, but after physical games two and three, the Canucks seemed like they were running on empty. Maybe the loss of nuisance Alex Burrows took a bit of life from them, but there were times where the Canucks seemed less-than-eager than their opponents in physical battles. We can look at Joe Colborne fighting off four men to successfully keep the puck in game four, or Michael Ferland and Mikael Backlund’s presence on the forecheck as evidence as to the Canucks’ lack of physicality.
It also helped that Vancouver isn’t very physical outside of their defenders and third line. The need to play up to the Flames’ big, dumb, and ugly style of hockey forced the Canucks to deploy their bigger, yet useless players more often, as seen in point #2. Truculence, pugnacity, and all of the other lovely thesaurus words Brian Burke is fond of really isn’t a great philosophy for building a championship hockey team, but it certainly worked against Vancouver. Will this physical play work well against a bigger, tougher Anaheim team? Probably not, so we have to hope Bob Hartley adjusts (i.e. no more Bollig).
4. Matt Stajan and Michael Ferland
We also have articles about these two in the playoffs (Stajan, Ferland). Both players have been silently productive for the Flames this year, and are important contributors in the bottom six. This series was their coming out party. After the first line proved unproductive, Stajan and Ferland were responsible for keeping the Sedins in check; a lofty expectation for third line players.
They performed above expectation. Ferland was the most relevant Flames player, running up and down the ice knocking over anything in his way and spoon feeding crow to Kevin Bieksa. Whenever he came over the bench, things seemed tilted in Calgary’s favour. His first period goal started the epic comeback for the Flames in game six, and he fittingly plunged the final dagger into the Canucks with his empty net goal in the dying seconds.
Matt Stajan was not the focal point in the series, but he was every bit as important. Placed on fourth line duty for most of the year, Hartley wisely took him from baby-sitting Bollig and put him in a more effective role. Stajan kept the Sedins in check, and punished the bottom two Canucks lines. Think of him and Ferland as a Mikael Backlund and Lance Bouma sort of deal. Ferland is a good player, but Stajan brought him to a higher level. If it wasn’t for Stajan, Ferland might not have the reputation he earned in this series.
We all owe Stajan for cursing his name for the past few years. The least we could do is appreciate his series-winning goal one more time.
When playing the Ducks next round, the key is to be consistent. The Ducks are a way better team than Vancouver, and their first round domination of the Jets is proof positive that the Flames will have to rely less on opposition mistakes. Bruce Boudreau isn’t going to send out his bottom lines as often as his top lines, and the Flames better be up to the task; shutting down the Sedins was hard enough. To stand a chance against Anaheim, the Flames have to prevent mistakes rather than waiting for the opposition to make them.