With just one game to go in the regular season, the Calgary Flames are gearing up for the playoffs where they’ll be entering as the #1 seed for the first time in 29 years. Obviously the Flames have been led all year long by their top guys, but these are five under-the-radar players who could prove to be big X factors in the playoffs.
1. James Neal
We’ll start with one of the bigger fish. All season long Neal has been rightfully maligned by most of the Flames fanbase after by-far the worst season of his NHL career. However he’s shown reason to be optimistic in the last few weeks as his performances are starting to look like pre-Calgary James Neal. He’s brought back the physicality and grit that he’d been known for on Vegas and Nashville, and the points have followed.
The Flames chose to hold steady at the trade deadline, not choosing to pay a big price for a rental. Considering they’re a 107 point team without much contribution on-ice from Neal, it’s scary to think where this team would be if he continues this level of play into the playoffs. It’s like the Flames are adding a deadline rental, but he already has chemistry with his teammates and knows the system.
2. Derek Ryan
He’s been one of the best Flames players since the All-Star break, posting 22 points in 30 games which is 2nd to only Johnny Gaudreau in that span. For the most part he’s centered the Flames “fourth line” between Andrew Mangiapane and Garnet Hathaway. That line has really taken off and could look to take advantage against weaker matchups in the playoffs.
Ryan has the fourth best faceoff percentage in the league at 57.8% and has really proven the Flames and Bill Peters right for bringing him in on July 1. If he can continue to make an impact and propel the bottom six to provide some depth scoring, the Flames will be in a really good position.
3. Rasmus Andersson
The rookie defenseman has come a long way this season. After being a question mark coming into camp, he swiped a spot in the lineup and has remained there all season long, even dabbling on the top pairing with Mark Giordano on occasion.
While his 19 points in 78 games don’t jump off the page, he does have 12 of those points in 25 games since February 14. Andersson’s defensive zone play has been strong, and he’s only starting to scratch the surface on the offensive side. If he can start unlocking his booming shot in the playoffs, Calgary could get some really good contributions on the back end. With the top two pairings garnering a lot of minutes and top matchups, the third pairing led by Andersson should be really helpful at both ends of the ice and at keeping the guys fresh.
4. The Goalies
The more I think about things, the more unsure I am as to who should start Game 1 of the playoffs. I’ve been firmly in the David Rittich corner for most of the season, however Mike Smith has been the unquestionably better goalie since the All Star break. While there’s some discussion to be had regarding level of opponents, Smith has played seven playoff teams to Rittich’s eight during that span.
Now I don’t buy the whole “Mike Smith puck-handling reduces hits” thing, but there is something to be said for him being able to shut down dump and chase opponents by stopping dump ins and getting the pucks out of the zone. Obviously this comes with risk as we’ve seen with some of his out-of-net goals this year, but it’s much harder to quantify how many goals/chances he prevents by stopping the original dump play.
On the other hand, I’d give Rittich the edge on being a consistent goaltender all year long. In pretty much every start, you know what you’re going to get from him. He probably won’t steal you a series, but probably won’t cost you one either. He’s very calm and collected in net, so hopefully that would transfer to playoffs.
Who should start Game 1?
This poll is closed
5. Bill Peters
After a season in which every major lineup decision Peters made seemed to pay off, he’s now gearing up for his first Stanley Cup playoffs appearance as a head coach. Obviously the stage becomes magnified in the playoffs, so it will be very important for Peters to maintain the focus and strategies that have made the team so successful this season.
Peters wasn’t afraid to juggle lines during the season (a breath of fresh air compared to his predecessor), and I’m sure he won’t be afraid to do so in the playoffs. The players like Peters and Peters likes his players. I’m looking forward to seeing him behind the bench in the playoffs. He’s also got home ice through the first three rounds to work with which should be a huge help given the Flames success at home this year.