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Canucks vs. Flames: Analytics preview

by Corey Masisak / NHL.com

The Calgary Flames may have been the most unpredictable team in an NHL season defined by them.

Previous teams of their ilk, ones that defied their analytic profile to secure a Stanley Cup Playoffs bid, have not fared well. Recent outliers like the Toronto Maple Leafs in 2013 and Colorado Avalanche in 2014 lost in the first round, but the Flames might have a better chance to stick around longer.

Those Maple Leafs and Avalanche teams faced significantly superior puck possession teams in the first round, but the Vancouver Canucks could be the ideal opponent for the Flames. Though Calgary has the worst possession numbers of any team to reach the postseason, Vancouver is seventh among the eight teams in the Western Conference.

There is still a significant gap between the two clubs, larger than any of the eight first-round matchups. When the two teams met, Vancouver owned the puck at even strength but Calgary outscored the Canucks 8-3 in the four games.

When a Calgary defenseman not named Mark Giordano (plus-6) or T.J. Brodie (minus-1) were on the ice, the shot-attempt differential was lopsided, according to www.datarink.com. Each of the other four defensemen who played at least 28 minutes against the Canucks were minus-20 or worse, and Ladislav Smid was minus-8 in less than nine minutes.

There are a couple of areas where the Flames might have the advantage though. One of the keys to Calgary's success has been a high team shooting percentage (second in the NHL at even strength), but another is staying out of the penalty box. No team can be great at puck possession with one fewer skater on the ice, and the Flames were the best among the 16 playoff qualifiers at limiting power-play chances against.

Another could be in net. Flames goaltender Jonas Hiller had unspectacular numbers this season, but he is either eighth or ninth among starting playoff goaltenders (depending on who plays for the Detroit Red Wings) in even-strength save percentage.

Hiller's .927 save percentage at evens is better than Eddie Lack's .919 and significantly better than Ryan Miller's .913. If Miller starts for the Canucks, he would have the worst even-strength save percentage of the 16 playoff goalies from the regular season.

Each team likes to deploy its top line for as many offensive zone starts as possible. The Flames probably don't want forwards Sean Monahan and Johnny Gaudreau seeing a lot of Henrik Sedin and Daniel Sedin, and Mikael Backlund could be the key to the entire series if his line can keep the Sedins in check.

In previous games this season, the Canucks depth forwards dominated the puck but the Flames put it in the net more. Calgary will need to continue to defy conventional analytic wisdom to advance, but that is something the Flames have excelled at this season.

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