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Surprising Canucks or Flames will reach 2nd round

NHL.com @NHL

One of two teams that didn't reach the Stanley Cup Playoffs last season is guaranteed to be in the Western Conference Second Round this season.

The Calgary Flames haven't been in the playoffs since the 2008-09 season and haven't won a playoff round since 2004, when they lost to the Tampa Bay Lightning in the Stanley Cup Final.

The Vancouver Canucks missed the playoffs last season after making it for five consecutive seasons, including twice as the Presidents' Trophy winner. Like the Flames, the Canucks haven't won a playoff round since they last reached the Stanley Cup Final, which was in 2011.

The past three times the Flames and Canucks have met in the playoffs, the winner of the series went on to play in the Stanley Cup Final.

The Canucks defeated the Flames in seven games in the 1994 Western Conference Quarterfinals and lost to the New York Rangers in the Cup Final. Calgary defeated Vancouver in seven games in the 2004 Western Conference Quarterfinals and lost to the Lightning in the Cup Final.

Calgary knocked Vancouver out of the playoffs in 1983, 1984 and 1989, when the Flames won the Stanley Cup. Each time the Flames and Canucks have met in the playoffs it has been a first-round series.

Calgary and Vancouver got to the playoffs this season by being two of the League's great cardiac teams; they didn't win easy and had to come back a lot.

The Flames and Canucks were at the top of the NHL in wins in games when they gave up the first goal. The Flames took it a step further by gaining approximately 25 percent of their points in games when they trailed after two periods by scoring more than 40 percent of their goals in the third period.

Calgary made the playoffs despite losing captain and would-be Norris Trophy candidate Mark Giordano to a biceps injury with 21 games remaining. Giordano was leading NHL defensemen with 48 points through 61 games.

The Flames went 12-6-3 without Giordano.

Vancouver made the playoffs despite losing goalie Ryan Miller to a knee injury on Feb. 22. Miller had 28 wins, including six shutouts, a 2.47 goals-against average and .913 save percentage before being sidelined.

Eddie Lack took over as the No. 1 goalie and the Canucks went 13-7-2 in their next 22 games. Miller played in the regular-season finale Saturday.

This series will be close if it mirrors the regular season series. Each team won two of the four games, one on the road and at home, but the Flames gained an extra point with an overtime loss Dec. 20 at Rogers Arena. The Canucks outscored the Flames 9-8 and outshot them 131-110.

Forwards

It all starts with Henrik Sedin and Daniel Sedin, the faces of the franchise for the past decade. They each quietly had very productive offensive seasons and played in every game.

Radim Vrbata played with the Sedins for most of the season and scored 30 goals for the second time in his NHL career. Alexandre Burrows played more with the twins recently, and his goal output increased as a result.

Vancouver is one of the most balanced offensive teams in the League with 11 forwards having scored 10 goals. That depth will certainly be important in the postseason. The second line of Chris Higgins, Nick Bonino and Vrbata has been a pleasant surprise. Rookies Bo Horvat and Linden Vey have developed nicely.

Jannik Hansen has 15 goals, and Derek Dorsett provides the physical edge for the Canucks, whose depth and experience could give them an edge.

Questions arose during the preseason about how the Flames would score, but Calgary has more than answered that with one of the more potent offenses in the Western Conference.

It's been primarily the responsibility of the top line, which features 31-year-old Jiri Hudler, 20-year-old center Sean Monahan, and 21-year-old Johnny Gaudreau, a contender for the Calder Trophy. The line scored 86 of Calgary's 237 goals and had 202 points.

The top line has received support from surprising places. Lance Bouma and Joe Colborne established career highs in points, and rookies Josh Jooris and Markus Granlund provided some much-needed punch and two-way play.

There has been plenty of veteran contributions too. Though injured for much of the season, center Mikael Backlund was relied on for some of Calgary's tougher matchups, freeing Monahan to play a more offensive role. Backlund is usually flanked by Bouma and David Jones, and they were a formidable shutdown unit with a hint of production.

That's left a bit of a rotation among the final six forwards.

Matt Stajan has been an anchor at center on Calgary's fourth line, and Jooris, Granlund, Drew Shore and Michael Ferland have been mixed in with veteran Brandon Bollig as those who have rotated in and out of the lineup.

Adding another wrinkle is Sam Bennett, Calgary's top pick (No. 4) in the 2014 NHL Draft. Bennett was recalled by the Flames after the Kingston Frontenacs, his junior club, were eliminated in the opening round of the Ontario Hockey League playoffs. Bennett had an assist on his first NHL shift Saturday.

Defensemen

Vancouver ranks in the bottom half of the League in goals against but yielded two goals or fewer in 10 of the final 20 games of the season. Alexander Edler and Christopher Tanev have been a formidable top pairing, and Dan Hamhuis with Yannick Webber and Luca Sbisa with Kevin Bieksa round out the top six.

The Canucks were decimated on defense earlier in the season, with Edler, Tanev, Hamhuis and Bieksa among those missing time. That gave Weber the chance to play more, and he has been a surprise on offense and defense. The Canucks used callups Ryan Stanton, Adam Clendening, Frank Corrado and Alex Biega, who provided the Canucks what was needed.

Now that the top six are healthy going into the playoffs, this is a huge plus for the Canucks. All of their defensemen have been in the playoffs before, and the Flames are much less experienced.

Led much of the way by Giordano, others have been forced to step into his role after the Calgary captain had his season ended in late February.

Alternate captains Kris Russell and Dennis Wideman played an integral role, absorbing top-pairing minutes over the final two months. Each has done an admiral job and established career highs in points. Russell's 283 shot blocks are an NHL record a single season, eclipsing Anton Volchenkov's 273 in 2006-07.

Giordano's injury called for an increased role from Deryk Engelland, signed to a three-year contract as an unrestricted free agent in July. He's been matched with TJ Brodie, who has switched from his regular spot on the right side of Giordano to Engelland's left to accommodate his new partner. Brodie also established a new high in points.

Calgary's third pairing has remained consistent, for the most part, since Giordano went down.

David Schlemko, acquired off waivers from the Dallas Stars shortly after Giordano's injury, has been a mainstay alongside Raphael Diaz, but uncertainty about a lower-body injury to Diaz could pave the way for Corey Potter or 22-year-old Tyler Wotherspoon. Potter has played limited minutes as the seventh defenseman; Wotherspoon has been recalled on occasion and remains with Calgary but has yet to play an NHL game this season.

Goalies

Ryan Miller sustained a knee injury Feb. 22 and didn’t play prior to starting Vancouver's regular season finale Saturday. He had a 29-15-1 record with a 2.53 goals-against average and a .911 save percentage.

Eddie Lack, who played in Miller's absence, had mixed results. Lack allowed two goals or fewer in 18 starts and more than three goals in 17 starts but is 18-13-4. He has a .919 save percentage. Lack started 20 of 22 games since Miller's injury, with Jacob Markstrom starting the other two.

Miller has plenty of playoff experience: he is 27-26 with three shutouts. Even if healthy, Miller could be rusty after missing nearly two months, but the Canucks may trust the veteran anyway.

Otherwise, Lack, who has never made an NHL playoff start, will shoulder the load. If so, how the inexperienced Lack does will go a long way in determining how far the Canucks advance.

Jonas Hiller could be Calgary's No. 1 goaltender by default.

He and Karri Ramo platooned for much of the regular season with neither named a true starter, but a late-season lower-body injury to Ramo could force Hiller into the primary role. The 33-year-old, with 26 games of NHL playoff experience to Ramo's none, was signed to a two-year contract in July.

Hiller struggled in his last go-round in the postseason a year ago with the Anaheim Ducks, usurped by the pair of Frederik Andersen and John Gibson.

With Ramo's injury, the Flames will have Joni Ortio backing up Hiller. He played nine games for Calgary last season and had four straight wins during a prior recall.

Coaches

Willie Desjardins did a remarkable job getting the Canucks, who didn't have high expectations before the season, into the playoffs. In his first season with Vancouver, Desjardins used four lines effectively, meaning the Canucks don't have to rely solely on the Sedin twins. He hasn't been afraid to change lines that were clicking in order to balance the scoring on the other lines.

Desjardins got a lot of production from a variety of players, rookies Horvat and Vey to veteran free agent addition Vrbata, who leads the Canucks in goals and power-play goals.

They are much better on the power play and the penalty kill, a credit to Desjardins who has worked to improve their special teams.

Desjardins may have been a first-time NHL coach, but it's worked out well. He could be in contention for the Jack Adams Award as coach of the year.

Few coaches have managed to squeeze as much out of their team as Bob Hartley. In his third season with Calgary, Hartley managed to speed up the rebuilding process, leading the Flames to their first playoff appearance in six years.

It's come via a mantra that Hartley has preached throughout his tenure: "Always earned, never given." The motto has not only paved the way for Calgary's youth to emerge, but has developed a formula for the Flames' relentless attitude on the ice.

He split Calgary's season into 11 seven-game segments (plus one five-game segment) to simulate a playoff-type schedule for his inexperienced group. Only once have the Flames posted a losing segment using Hartley's system.

Hartley won the Stanley Cup with the Colorado Avalanche in 2001 to complement a Calder Cup title in 1997 and Swiss League championship in 2012.

Special teams

The power play and penalty kill have been great strengths. Vrbata is the only double-digit goal scorer on the power play, but many, including the Sedins, Higgins, Burrows and defensemen Weber and Edler have chipped in with at least three power-play goals each.

The Sedins and Vrbata have combined for more than 75 power-play points, a big reason the Canucks have scored on almost one of every five power plays. They don't often go more than two or three games without scoring on the power play.

Vancouver is among the worst offenders in minor penalties taken, but their best defensive defensemen (Tanev, Edler, Hamhuis and Sbisa) and forwards Higgins and Brad Richardson have made the penalty kill one of the toughest to score against in the League.

It hasn't allowed a goal in April, and if that continues, it will be a huge advantage for Vancouver.

Calgary's success on the power play has been a huge part of their offensive success, led by Gaudreau, Monahan and Hudler.

The Flames defense also was productive, even without Giordano. Wideman, Russell and Brodie delivered from the point to help Calgary convert at a success rate of 18.8 percent.

They were relied upon on the penalty kill, too, though they haven't clicked with the same efficiency. The Flames finished the season killing 80.6 percent of their penalties drawn.

The plus side for Calgary is that they've allowed the sixth fewest goals while down a man, a result of taking the second-fewest minor penalties in the League (216).

Series changer

Alexandre Burrows
Right Wing - VAN
GOALS: 18 | ASST: 15 | PTS: 33
SOG: 144 | +/-: 2
Alexandre Burrows -- The forward scored 25 goals or more in four straight seasons from 2008-12. He's not one of Vancouver's top scorers in 2014-15, but doesn't have to be. During the Cup run in 2011, he had 17 points in 25 games and has proven he can produce when needed in the playoffs.

He can play with or without the Sedins, and plays in all situations, making him one of the more valuable players on the Canucks.

Burrows brings a physical element which Vancouver needs. When things get physical during the postseason, he can thrive in that type of game and be a difference-maker.

Johnny Gaudreau
Left Wing - CGY
GOALS: 24 | ASST: 40 | PTS: 64
SOG: 167 | +/-: 11
Johnny Gaudreau -- The rookie forward will garner a lot of attention for the Calder Trophy. He was the NHL's rookie co-leader in points with 64, and the Hobey Baker Award winner is Calgary's most dynamic forward.

It's Gaudreau's first opportunity to play for the Stanley Cup, but he's no stranger to high-pressure situations. The 5-foot-9, 150-pound left wing won the Clark Cup with the USHL's Dubuque Fighting Saints in 2011, an NCAA title with Boston College in 2012, and represented the United States at the 2013 IIHF World Junior Championship and IIHF World Championship in 2014.

With the ability to change the complexion of a hockey game in one shift, Gaudreau is the motor who powers the Flames.

Will win if...

CANUCKS WILL WIN IF … Miller plays as he did during the regular season and not how he played in 2014 playoffs with the St. Louis Blues. Miller was 2-4 with a 2.70 GAA and .897 save percentage in a first round loss to the Chicago Blackhawks.

The Canucks also need more than just the Sedins and Vrbata to score. If they can get goals from their third and fourth lines, they should be able to advance to the second round.

FLAMES WILL WIN IF … Calgary can overcome inexperience and their youth can continue to serve them well with added pressure. The playoff roster will have 473 postseason games, including 10 players who have yet to play a Stanley Cup Playoff game.

Five Flames have played more than 13 games of playoff hockey, including Hudler and Wideman, who combine for 110. The alternate captains will be forced to lean on that experience with a lineup that could have as many as six rookies take a regular shift in the first round.

Written by Dan Rosen, David Satriano and Aaron Vickers

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