NHL Playoffs Preview: Flames vs Canucks

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On Wednesday, April 15th, the Calgary Flames and Vancouver Canucks will square off in the first game of their Western Conference Quarterfinal matchup. In six previous playoff meetings, four of those times the winner has gone to the Stanley Cup Finals, including the last three series’. Will that trend continue in 2015?

Season Series
Calgary Flames (2-1-1) vs. Vancouver Canucks (2-2-0) 

Calgary and Vancouver have had nearly identical seasons this year, with both teams looking for redemption from a rough year in 2013-14. Vancouver won the first two meetings between the two clubs, a 4-2 win on opening night in Calgary and a 3-2 OT thriller at home in December. But the Flames took the final two games of the season series, when goalie Joni Ortio stole the show in a 1-0 shutout win in Vancouver and a 3-2 win in the final meeting in February at the Saddledome.

The Canucks and Flames have been arch rivals ever since the days of the old Smythe Division, when Western Canadian teams were all dominant forces in the league. The two sides have met six times prior in the playoffs, many of which have been pivotal moments in each franchise’s history.

The Canucks swept the Flames 3-0 in the 1982 Smythe Division Semi-Finals, en route to Vancouver’s first ever Stanley Cup Finals appearance against the powerhouse New York Islanders. The Flames would then win three straight playoff series’ against Vancouver in 1983, 1984, and most importantly 1989; where the Canucks took the greatest Calgary team in history to overtime of Game Seven, before Calgary forward Joel Otto deflected the puck in with his skate past Canucks goalie Kirk McLean to give the Flames the series win.

Calgary would go on to defeat the Montreal Canadiens in the Stanley Cup Finals that year, giving the Flames their first and only championship to date. Most of that championship core was still intact when the Flames and Canucks met again in 1994, with Calgary taking a 3-1 series lead on Vancouver. Facing elimination the Canucks put together one of the greatest series comebacks in sports history, winning the final three games of the series all in overtime. The series was capped off by an amazing Kirk McLean toe save on Robert Reichel in the first overtime of Game Seven, and Pavel Bure’s series winning breakaway goal on Mike Vernon in double overtime.

The Canucks rode the momentum all the way to another Stanley Cup Final, this time falling in Game Seven to the New York Rangers. The Flames would get their revenge a decade later in 2004, when Jarome Iginla, Martin Gelinas, and Mikka Kipprusoff would lead Calgary to another seven game series victory. Vancouver forward Matt Cooke had extended the Canucks’ life by scoring the game tying goal in Game Seven with 5.7 seconds left in the final period. All Canucks momentum ended in just a few minutes of overtime, when Gelinas put the puck past Canucks netminder Alex Auld for the series win.

Storyline

The Canucks are looking to win their first playoff series since the 2011 Western Conference Finals against the San Jose Sharks. Since then, the team has played in three playoff series’, including the 2011 Stanley Cup Finals against Boston, and posted a horrendous record of 4-12 in that time. This has been a season that started with a new general manager in Jim Benning, a new coach in Willie Desjardins, and a new president in Canuck legend Trevor Linden. The team welcomed the additions of Radim Vrbata, Ryan Miller, Nick Bonino, Derek Dorsett, Luca Sbisa, and Linden Vey. They also said goodbye to core players like Ryan Kesler and Jason Garrison. Rookie Bo Horvat emerged as a full time centreman to most people’s pleasant surprise, with the excitement that there are better years ahead of him. The Canucks finished with a record of 48-29-5 and 101 points, an 18 point improvement that was good enough for 2nd in the Pacific Division.

Calgary’s season was a coming out party for rookie sensation Johnny Gaudreau; the Calder Trophy candidate scored 64 points in 80 games. The team had finished near the bottom of the standings in 2013-14, but made a 20 point improvement to finish with 97 points, beating out the defending Stanley Cup champion LA Kings for the final playoff spot in the Pacific Division. Jiri Hudler, Mark Giordano, and Sean Monahan were all big leaders this year for the Flames, but a major injury to Giordano has left the team without his services for the rest of the year. The Flames have not won a playoff series since going to Game Seven of the Stanley Cup Finals in 2004, and are making their first playoff appearance since 2009.

Significant Injuries

The Flames have suffered one of the worst individual injuries of any playoff team after losing team captain Mark Giordano for the remainder of the season to a bicep injury. Giordano had 41 points in just 61 games, enough to lead all NHL defensemen at the time of his injury. To their credit, the Flames have done incredibly well without their captain, posting a 12-6-3 record in that time span. However, Giordano will be missed dearly on the depth chart, and that’s incredibly important when you’re playing a game every two days.

The Canucks will most likely tap Eddie Lack on the shoulder to be Game One’s starting goaltender, as Ryan Miller has just returned to the lineup from a knee injury he picked up in late February. Lack has played admirably in Miller’s absence, and while inconsistent at times, has made the big saves when he’s needed to. Miller officially returned to the lineup on Apr.9 as a backup for Lack in a game against the Arizona Coyotes. Miller played the season finale game against the Edmonton Oilers on Apr.11, a game the Canucks won 6-5 in overtime.

Keys to the Series

If the Canucks want to win, they need to take advantage of the Flames’ inexperience in the playoffs. Many of these Canucks were on the team that went to the Cup Final in 2011, and will want to prove that they can finish the job. Eddie Lack and Ryan Miller will have to be on the top of their games against the Flames’ tough first line of Jiri Hudler, Johnny Gaudreau, and Sean Monahan.

The Flames will need to use their strength and toughness to beat the Canucks. However, Calgary will also have to keep from taking too many penalties against a deadly Canucks power play. The bottom nine forwards must be able to keep the same scoring pace as Calgary’s top forward line.

Series Prediction

Like most series’ involving these two teams, this one will be a thrilling ride. In the end, experience will beat youth with the Canucks winning in six games.

Lachlan Irvine

Lifelong Canucks fan, goalie on the ice.

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