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Steinberg's Slant: Keys to success

by Pat Steinberg / Calgary Flames

The Calgary Flames are back in the postseason for the first time since 2009, which is an awesome accomplishment. But as they get set to open up against the Vancouver Canucks on Wednesday night, it’s pretty clear that making the playoffs is only one small step for the Flames. Just being there is fun, but now Calgary wants to make some noise in the postseason.

Step number one in doing that is beating their arch-rival in a seven game series. So how do the Flames go about doing that? Well, for me there are a few things that jump off the page. If Calgary is able to be successful in a few key areas, we could very well be talking about their first series win since 2004.

WIN THE EVEN-STRENGTH BATTLE

Being better at five-on-five isn’t necessarily rocket science, because it’s usually the most important factor in any game or series. But it takes on an even higher priority when playing Vancouver because of how good their special teams are.

During the regular season, the Canucks owned some of the league’s best special teams. First off, their power play finished ninth overall at 19.3 percent, which makes sense with players like the Sedins, Radim Vrbata, and more. They were even better on the penalty kill. Vancouver’s 85.7 percent efficiency rate was second only to the Minnesota Wild over 82 games.

If the regular season was any indication, the special teams war might be tough one to win. However, the good news is, I think the Canucks are susceptible at even strength.

Vancouver was one of the league’s negative possession teams this year. By that, I mean they spent more time defending than they did on the attack. We can make this determination by looking at their shot attempts for and against, which saw them finish with a 49.5 percent possession rate.

More simply, the Canucks are not a team that had success by relying on a strong cycle and possession game. As such, there’s a somewhat decent chance the Flames can have some success when things are at even-strength.

Even better, Calgary was the most disciplined team in the NHL this season. The Flames found themselves shorthanded just 186 times all season and had eight different games where they didn’t take a single penalty. If that trend continues, Vancouver’s pretty impressive power play won’t have a ton of chances to burn them.

Again, winning the five-on-five battle is huge in any series. The game is primarily played five aside (thanks genius), so winning here will give you success more nights than not. But against the Canucks, it’s even more important. Not only do they boast great special teams, but they also have some vulnerabilities five-on-five. Those are vulnerabilities Calgary needs to take advantage of.

CHALLENGE THEIR DEPTH

We all know how good Vancouver’s top end talent is. The line boasting Henrik and Daniel Sedin was one of the league’s best all season. Things are much the same on the back end, as the Canucks boast a very strong top defensive pairing of Chris Tanev and Alexander Edler. But as you go deeper, there might be some areas to take advantage of.

Vancouver’s bottom six forward group wasn’t overly strong during the regular season. In terms of possession, both Linden Vey and Derek Dorsett were in the red despite starting more of their shifts in the offensive zone. Other bottom six fixtures like Jannik Hansen and Bo Horvat didn’t necessarily set the team back, but didn’t a do a ton to drive things forward either.

On defence, the third pairing of Kevin Bieksa and Luca Sbisa was in a similar boat. They can be prone to mistakes when under pressure, and that’s where the Flames have got to take advantage.

This is where players like Josh Jooris, Matt Stajan, and Paul Byron (if he’s healthy) can really make a difference. Those three were Calgary’s most reliable possession drivers in the bottom six during the regular season, and all three have a real chance to shine in this series. If they’re on, then wingers like Mason Raymond and Joe Colborne can really feed off it, and thus, potentially give the Canucks fits deeper down the lineup.

START WITH THE PUCK

During the regular season, the face-off dot was somewhat of an issue for the Flames. However, as the season went along, they showed steady improvement in that area. Well, despite finishing 26th in the league at 47.4 percent, the Flames will actually hold the advantage on Vancouver to start this series.

The Canucks were the NHL’s second worst face-off team in the regular season, winning just 46.7 percent of their draws. Now, the gap between the two teams isn’t huge, but Calgary’s positive trend in the dot is actually somewhat promising. For a good chunk of the first half of the season, the Flames were 29th and seemed to be stagnant. To bump their rate up about a full percentage point in the second half is actually fairly notable.

Stajan was Calgary’s most reliable face-off winner for most of the season, and as already mentioned, he could play a big role in this series. Well, with him winning 50.3 percent of his draws this season, his importance becomes even more pronounced. But in the face-off dot, he’s not the only one who will play a part.

Our last article profiled Sean Monahan and we talked about his face-off improvement from year one to year two. Well, with 1830 face-offs taken during the regular season, no one in this series took more of them during the regular season. His 49.3 percent success rate is better than Vancouver’s top two draw-takers in Henrik Sedin (45.0 percent) and Nick Bonino (47.4 percent). Knowing Monahan will take the majority of his draws against those two, the numbers seem to favour him.

Starting with the puck is of paramount importance, and if the Flames want to have success in the previous two areas, taking advantage of the Canucks in the face-off dot will go a long way.

Let’s be honest; this is very likely going to be a long series. The Flames and Canucks are pretty evenly matched, so that’s why the little things will end up making a big difference. The three things I just highlighted could prove to be extremely important as to whether the Flames are playing into May or are one-and-done in the 2015 postseason.

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