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'MAKIN' HISTORY'

Lucic, Giordano and Ward weigh in on what would be an epic post-season clash with the Winnipeg Jets

by RYAN DITTRICK @ryandittrick / Calgaryflames.com

How about this for a piece of trivia:

When was the last time a pair of western-Canadian teams closed out their regular-season file, followed by a best-of-five pre-playoff qualifying round without stepping foot in either of the two home venues?

"Makin' history," laughed Milan Lucic. "Why not, right?"

Indeed, the only other time the Flames and Winnipeg Jets met this year was back on Oct. 26, 2019, when the snowflakes in the brisk, prairie chill provided a most elegant backdrop to the NHL Heritage Classic. 

From The Great Outdoors in Regina to… well, we don't know yet. 

Either way, the two rivals are set to renew acquaintances in the most special of circumstances:

For the right to advance to Round 1 of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. 

If the NHL's return-to-play plan comes to fruition later this summer, the Flames and Jets will square off in neutral territory as part of a 24-team fight for the game's ultimate prize. 

"Whatever scouting report we've had gets thrown right out the window," Lucic said. "I mean, we've only played them once. Outdoors. Everyone loves that environment, but it's pretty tough to get a read on your opponent. 

"And by the time the puck drops, about nine months will have passed.

"So, yeah, this is definitely a fresh start. For both teams.  

"But after months of not having much at all, it's nice to have some good news to talk about."

Sing it, Looch. 

On Tuesday, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman outlined the league's 24-team plan that begins with a 16-squad, best-of-five qualifying round to determine who advances to the official First Round of the spring summer dance. 

The Flames and Jets were two of the hottest teams entering the pause back on March 12, and carry nearly identical point percentages (.564 for Calgary vs. 563 for Winnipeg) that determined the conference-qualifying bracket. 

As for what, if anything, carries over after such a long break is anybody's guess, but no matter how you slice it, the players are pumped about the prospect of headlining what should be a thrilling, all-Canadian matchup. 

 

 

"It's going to tough - a real grind," captain Mark Giordano said. "I honestly think this year, more than any other year in recent memory, is going to be the most difficult ever to win this thing.

"But make no mistake - that's how we want it to be. 

"The Jets are a good team that's gone through a lot of adversity as well. They lost a big chunk of their players, especially on the blueline, over the past year and have been playing well all season long."

The Jets have a number of offensive weapons, with 23-year-old Kyle Connor finishing the regular season with a career-high 38 goals and 73 points (1.03 PPG). He joins star centre Mark Scheifele and veteran Blake Wheeler on the top line, forming a lethal top-six that includes Nikolaj Ehlers and 2016 second-overall pick Patrik Laine, who 
was approaching his fourth-consecutive 30-goal campaign.

The Jets had their blueline decimated, with Dustin Byfuglien (mutual contract termination), Jacob Trouba (trade), Tyler Myers (UFA) and Ben Chiarot (UFA) all departing over the off-season. 

Others, though, have stepped up in their absence, with Josh Morrissey and Neal Pionk carrying the mail.

But Winnipeg's great asset comes in goal, where 27-year-old Connor Hellebuyck is having a Vezina-caliber season with a 31-21-5 record, a .922 save percentage and a 2.57 goals-against average. 

Will that be enough to cool the Flames?

The skipper doesn't think so. 

"I've said it before and I'll say it again," Giordano said proudly. "I think we're in a much better spot this year than we were last year. We've been through a lot as a team. We've faced a lot of adversity, with things happening both on and off the ice for us all season long. 

"We're ready for more adversity. 

"This format, what it does, is that we're going to have to earn it against a very good opponent. And I can say for certain there's a lot different feel in our room this year."

The Flames finished the regular season winning three of their last four and going 6-3-1 in their final 10. 

Up front, Matthew Tkachuk and Elias Lindholm have taken their games to another level this year, with Johnny Gaudreau and Sean Monahan still working their magic alongside. 

Gaudreau, in particular, had truly found his rhythm, humming at a point-per-game pace until a four-game streak was halted on March 8 against the Vegas Golden Knights. 

Mikael Backlund was also heating up, and Andrew Mangiapane was on track to crack the 20-goal and 40-point plateau after surging onto the scene late last year. 

In goal, David Rittich and Cam Talbot have given the Flames all they could ask for in that position, with both men earning the tag as the team's No.-1 'tender. 

"In a best-of-five format, you can't afford to be slow for a game or two games, or you're going to find yourself behind the eight-ball awfully quick," interim head coach Geoff Ward said of the matchup. We've got to make sure that we've got a plan in place to make sure that our guys come out firing on all cylinders.

"They're big, they're fast, they're skilled, and they've got some of the best goaltending in the league. ... There are a lot of really good things about the Winnipeg Jets and we're going to have to be at our best in order to have success against them.

"The team that gets themselves ready to play right away is going to put themselves at an advantage. We know everybody's going to be healthy and we know everybody's going to be excited to come back. But we see it at the start of every year - where some teams come out of the gates really quickly and some teams come out of it really slow. 

"We can't afford to come out slow. Not against them or anyone."

 

 

Ward and the rest of the coaching staff have been busy over the past few months, plotting any and all scenarios into their virtual playbook so when the call to return is officially made, they can hit the ground running. 

The scouting report on the Jets is already fully baked, but that isn't Ward's primary concern. 

The last thing he wants to do is handicap his players with an overload of info. 

Instead, establishing a plan for training camp to help the players maximize their potential and re-gain their form from the first 70 games is top of mind. 

The rest, he says, will sort itself out. 

"The thing I always come back to is: what really gives you a chance to win at this time of year?" he said. "Solid team defence. 

"The offence, we want it to come, of course. But we're going to have to make sure that we're really good in our own defend and limiting the scoring chances against a team that has a lot of skill. 

"I feel like our ability to play defensively in all three zones is going to be a key factor to not only having success in the (qualifying) round, but also in the subsequent rounds, too. 

"You can't win the Stanley Cup if you're not good away from the puck, and you can't win the Stanley Cup if your team does not play well defensively. 

"That, for us, is going to be critical.

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