It’s been a while since TSFJ made it to the land of stick saves and dekes. With the arguably best postseason in sports – the Stanley Cup Playoffs – getting underway tonight, we asked one of our alums to give the people two teams (one in each conference) they should keep a close eye on. Take it away, Dillon!
Western Conference: Calgary Flames
Canada has a well-documented drought. Not since the Montreal Canadiens in 1993 has a Canadian franchise lifted the Stanley Cup, and that was a near miracle: the Habs won 10 overtime games on that run. The team that came closest to breaking the streak, the 2004 Calgary Flames, experienced something like the opposite of a miracle. Up 3-2 in the final series with the Tampa Bay Lightning, Martin Gelinas came within centimeters of breaking a 2-2 deadlock in the third period of Game 6. He crashed the net and watched as the puck appeared to — but ultimately didn’t — cross the line against Nikolai Khabibulin’s pad. Martin St. Louis won the game in the second overtime before the Lightning clinched the Cup at home in Game 7.
Fifteen years later, we may be in for a rematch. The Flames and Lightning — the James Taylor first draft of match-ups — hold down the top spots in their respective conferences, and Calgary, of Canada’s three true cup contenders, offers the nation’s most intriguing hope of bringing Lord Stanley north of the border.
Only Tampa scored more goals than the Flames, which featured five players with 70-plus points, a contingent that includes an offensive dynamo (Johnny Gaudreau, 99 points), a Norris Trophy favorite (defenseman Mark Giordano, 74 points) and a skilled pest (Matthew Tkachuk, 77 points). And although goaltending is a question mark — Calgary will start David Rittich over inconsistent veteran Mike Smith — the Flames finished ninth in the NHL in goals against. Calgary can score, hit and defend with anyone in the league and opens the postseason with a Colorado Avalanche team that finished with six more losses than wins (38-30-14).
Factoring in the home-ice advantage of the Scotiabank Saddledome, the Flames could ride a Sea of Red to end a drought.
Eastern Conference: Columbus Blue Jackets
Has a bottom seed in any sport ever been all-in? That’s the situation for the Columbus Blue Jackets, which claimed the final wild card spot in the Eastern Conference. The Blue Jackets entered the season with two star players, goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky and winger Artemi Panarin, on the final year of their contracts. Both have done the typical free agent dance of hinting they would like to leave but wouldn’t rule out — officially — a return to Columbus. All to say, they’re as good as gone once the summer hits.
This scenario left the contending Jackets in a precarious position: seek trades for Panarin and Bobrovsky in hopes of getting a big return or keep them for a Stanley Cup run. Columbus chose the latter and bolstered an already solid roster by adding Matt Duchene and Ryan Dzingel at the trade deadline.
Duchene, another unrestricted free agent, was the prize, but the results have been middling. He was on a 44-goal pace with Ottawa prior to the trade. He scored just four times for the Jackets in 23 games. Columbus, thought to be a contender following the Duchene and Dzingel acquisitions, stumbled down the stretch, clinching a playoff berth on the penultimate day of the season.
The Jackets’ prize? A first-round date with the Lightning, the best team of the salary cap era.
Optimism is too strong a word, but maybe there’s an inkling of hope for Columbus fans. After all, the Jackets have a two-time Vezina Trophy winner in goal, a Cup-winning coach in John Tortorella, talented duo Seth Jones and Zach Werenski on the blue line and a blend of size, skill and speed up front. The formula, on paper, looks promising.
Then again the opponent, and the looming departures of two key players, suggests it’ll be a short spring and a long summer for the Jackets.
Philadelphia born. Raised in God’s country aka Duluth, Minnesota. Give me a frozen pond and an open pitch and I’ll be happy. Follow me on twitter @noclassfriday