The Calgary Flames enter the 2009 Stanley Cup Playoffs seemingly winded from the long regular season and incredibly lucky to have played so well in the first half of the campaign. Had they not performed the way they did earlier, they could easily have found themselves with nothing to do but prepare for a long offseason.
As it stands, Calgary has a much tougher road ahead in attempting to win their first Cup since 1989. Their first-round matchup is against the one team Calgary hoped never to see come April: the Chicago Blackhawks.
In the season series, Calgary went 0-for-4 and never even came close in a contest, losing by no less than three goals in three of the four contests.
A common statistic bandied about these days is Blackhawks goalie Khabibulin’s impressive record against the Flames in his career, a dominance that extends back into the mid-'90s.
Also citing the Flames’ weak power play, which went 0-for-43 in the last ten games of the regular season, many people have already written Calgary off in their first-round series. However, there are many positives for Calgary fans to look for when considering the current Playoff race.
Chicago features a very young core of players, and it will be interesting to see how they perform under extreme pressure, playing in a city thirsting for a major sporting championship and an Original Six hockey town that hasn’t seen its team in the postseason since 2002. They'll be up against some of the most established hockey icons of this era, including Jarome Iginla, Miikka Kiprusoff, and Todd Bertuzzi. Should Calgary pick up a victory away from home (something they have struggled to do in the past few years), the Blackhawks could easily find themselves ousted in four or five games.
Now, should Calgary hope to avoid an early exit, the Flames need to get their power play clicking either by shuffling around their players or consistently fielding a four-forward setup with the man advantage. With the return of Rene Bourque, they have an excellent passer who can unselfishly direct play whenever Iginla is not on the ice.
Another plus for the Flames is that any of the problems that plagued the team towards the end of the season will have resolved themselves by the time they face off with Chicago tomorrow night.
Many of the injured players Calgary has sorely missed throughout the season will be available either at the start of the series or at some point during the series. Reports from the team indicate Rene Bourque has skated with Jarome Iginla and Olli Jokinen, and that the three will play on the first line together in Bourque’s first action since injuring his ankle a few months ago.
While Rhett Warrener was not cleared by doctors to play, Robyn Regehr and Cory Sarish are expected to be back some time during the series; Dion Phaneuf, Curtis Glencross, and Andre Roy will all return from minor injuries as well. Plus, Anders Eriksson cleared re-entry waivers and “will play” according to Darryl Sutter.
Even Mark Giordano, feared to have been lost for the season, could return later in the series or in a subsequent series (if the Flames advance).
In the last week of the season, injuries to key players prevented Calgary from fielding a full squad because of salary cap constraints, but in the Playoffs, no such restrictions exist. Calgary can play any complement of 20 players they choose, allowing the team to limit players’ ice time, leaving them fresher for later games in this "second season."
I don’t put much stock in Khabibulin’s “dominance” of Calgary in his career. Fifteen years is an enormous amount of time, and I don’t believe playing well over a decade ago is indicative of what his performance will be like against a team in a current Playoff series.
Consider that three of Calgary’s wins against him came in the 2004 Stanley Cup Finals, when Calgary could have easily won (or some would say, did win) the series against the Tampa Bay Lightning. In that series, Khabibulin played well but displayed none of the "dominance" that would lead one to believe he had amassed such a great record against Calgary.
If the Flames are going to beat the Blackhawks this postseason, their big-name players need to step up. Olli Jokinen, after scoring eight goals in eight games for the Flames after the trade deadline, has scored no goals in his last 11 and has contributed to the ineffective power plays. Todd Bertuzzi has also done little since returning from minor knee surgery, racking up a paltry 1 assist since returning March 26.
While Jarome Iginla and Mike Cammalleri have carried this team to the postseason, Miika Kiprusoff needs to return to his usual form and shrug off the naysayers who claim his 76 appearances and average statistics this season prove he can’t handle such a large workload.
Chicago is by far the Flames’ greatest challenge in reaching the Stanley Cup for the first time since 2004. Should Miikka Kiprusoff play as well as he has in previous Playoffs and should Calgary’s stagnant power play ignite, Calgary could be set for a long run.