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Stanley Cup Playoffs

One of the NHL’s greatest rivalries prepares for its first playoff meeting in over 30 years. (The Canadian Press/Jeff McIntosh)

2022 Stanley Cup Playoffs Round 2 Preview: Flames vs. Oilers

One of the NHL’s greatest rivalries prepares for its first playoff meeting in over 30 years. (The Canadian Press/Jeff McIntosh)

2022 Stanley Cup Playoffs Round 2 Preview: Flames vs. Oilers

The NHL has some great rivalries, and a 2022 Stanley Cup Playoffs meeting isn’t necessary to establish one. But the best rivalries are often defined by what happens in a best-of-seven series. Sidney Crosby and the Penguins toying with Alex Ovechkin and the Capitals until Washington finally got over the hump. Claude Giroux’s “The Shift” against the Penguins in 2012 in between two chippy, Pittsburgh-controlled series in the Giroux-Crosby era of the Battle of Pennsylvania. The Kings reverse sweeping the Sharks in surprisingly dominant fashion in 2014 en route to the Cup. Plenty of memorable Rangers-Penguins and Capitals-Rangers clashes, including some 3-1 series comebacks and even an overtime winner in Game 7. And those last two words are synonymous with the Original Six Bruins-Maple Leafs rivalry.

But there may not be a better rivalry in all of hockey than the Battle of Alberta. The sport just means more to Canadian markets. When the Oilers and Flames last met in the playoffs way back in 1991, the teams were fading out of the best era in their histories. Edmonton of course won five Cups between 1984 and 1990, with the Flames being one of the other two teams to win it all during that span. The Oilers generally had their way with the Flames in those playoff showdowns. But Calgary found itself on arguably the most memorable moment of those series.

The Flames and Oilers haven’t been lacking dramatic moments in recent years. From goalie fights to showboating and games with all of the goals, the two have rekindled a bitter hatred that simmered a bit as both teams struggled mightily in the first decade of the cap era (excluding Edmonton’s run to the 2006 Final). Things have improved for both franchises in recent years. But neither has had the deep playoff run that they were used to 30 years ago; the teams had combined for just two series wins and zero trips to the third round since 2006 entering these playoffs. The former total will be doubled by the time the dust settles; the latter won’t be zero much longer. No one knows for sure what will happen in this series, but we can basically guarantee one thing: you won’t want to miss it.

Calgary Flames (58-18-6, No. 1 Pacific) vs. Edmonton Oilers (49-27-6, No. 2 Pacific)

Recent History: Plenty of playoff history, just none recent. The teams met five times between 1983-1991, with Edmonton winning four of those series. But nothing to speak of in the last 31 years.

Season Series: Edmonton had no problem scoring goals against the Flames, tallying at least five in three of four meetings. The Oilers won the first two games, but both of those were before the calendar reached February. The teams met twice more, both in March, and the Flames won both, including hanging a nine-spot to overcome a Leon Draisaitl hat trick in their final showdown. Calgary generally controlled play, recording an expected goals percentage of 58% or better in three of the four contests.

The Last Time Here: As previously mentioned, playoff success has been sparse for both franchises lately. Each team has one trip to the second round in the last 16 years. Calgary’s came first, back in 2015, when a very young, fun Flames team was simply handled by the superior, veteran Ducks in five games. Speaking of Anaheim, they were also Edmonton’s opponent when they broke into the Round 2 party in 2017. That series was much more competitive, and arguably one the Oilers should’ve won. They blew a lead in Game 4, then did the same in much more memorable fashion in Game 5. Edmonton rallied to win Game 6, but Anaheim prevailed in Game 7.

The Road Thus Far: Both teams obviously got through Round 1, but it didn’t come easily. That was especially unexpected for Calgary, whose reward for winning the Pacific Division was a meeting with a pretty one-dimensional and one-line Stars team. That one-dimension turned out to be pretty good, though. Jake Oettinger was unreal all series, including one of the greatest goaltending performances in NHL history in Game 7. The Stars pushed the Flames to the brink, but Darryl Sutter kept the Flames calm, and they prevailed in overtime of Game 7 on a sharp-angle shot by Johnny Gaudreau.

The Oilers figured to be able to more or less score at will against a Kings team without Drew Doughty in Round 1. Their offense came a bit more sporadically; they did score 14 goals combined in Games 2 and 3, but were shutout in Game 4 and didn’t score until late in the second period of Game 7. Edmonton probably deserved a more convincing victory, though; their 57.1% expected goals share was fifth best among teams in Round 1. Connor McDavid’s incredible series somehow went underrated; his 14 points against the Kings alone would’ve been tied for 10th in scoring for last year’s entire playoffs with Mat Barzal (19 games played) and Tyler Toffoli (22 GP). Decent.

Calgary Wins Because: They’re the better team top to bottom. Don’t let the length of the series fool you; Calgary’s 60.03% expected goals share ranked second in the entire playoffs, slightly ahead of the same Avalanche team that swept through the first round. If the Predators received the same goaltending the Stars had, they probably would’ve seen at least six games. And in turn, if Dallas didn’t have Jake Oettinger in net, they likely would’ve been out in five games or less.

The scoring numbers for most of Calgary’s best players weren’t great, but that wasn’t the case for the Flames top line. The Johnny Gaudreau-Elias Lindholm-Matthew Tkachuk trio wasn’t as dominant from a play-driving standpoint as they were in the regular season. But they did outscore Dallas 4-3 at 5-on-5, accounting for 40% of Calgary’s overall goals in the series, including three of their four game winners. Gaudreau is a transition machine who many were worried might struggle under Darryl Sutter’s more dump-and-chase focused systems. That obviously hasn’t been a concern, but it’s not because Gaudreau has adapted to Sutter, but the other way around. Gaudreau has been able to play his game, and that combined with the chemistry alongside Lindholm and Tkachuk led to not just his best regular season, but shedding the playoff demons that haunted Gaudreau in years prior.

Calgary did get some secondary scoring of course in the first round, just not from the players you’d expect. Tyler Toffoli and Andrew Mangiapane scored just once each in the series. By Corey Sznajder’s game score metric (which as of writing does not include Games 6 and 7), Mikael Backlund rated as the third-best Flame, with the usual defensive-minded center scoring three goals as well. Trevor Lewis chipped in a pair of goals. Rasmus Andersson added one on a 5-on-3 power-play… and that was it. That’s all of Calgary’s goal-scoring from Round 1 right there.

Safe to say that probably won’t be the case in this series, and definitely won’t be if the Flames advance. Here’s the good news for the Flames; it probably won’t. Other than the top-line and Mangiapane, no one’s regular season numbers really wow you. But the Flames just have so many solid players that mesh together to make them so formidable.

Every single Flame had at least a 54% expected goals share in the first round, meaning even their “worst” players were still driving play to a ridiculously high degree. Ten of those players had an xG share over 60%, further displaying just how good the Flames really were against Dallas. It’s not like Calgary is lacking talent upfront either, so there isn’t much of a concern they just won’t be able to finish. Their trigger-happy nature could really cause problems for an Oilers defense that struggles to break the puck out.

Beating the Oilers requires at least two strong defensive pairs so long as McDavid and Draisaitl are split up. Fortunately for Calgary, all three of their regular defense pairs in the regular season cracked the league’s top 20 in expected goals share (min. 300 minutes together at 5-on-5). It will be interesting to see how much of these duties fall on the old-school defensive-minded Nikita Zadorov-Erik Gudbranson duo versus Calgary’s other two pairs. Calgary has some really strong puck-moving defensemen, led by Oliver Kylington’s breakout season. He and Rasmus Andersson struggle to hold the blue-line, though. Other than that though Andersson is one of Calgary’s best defenders, forming a great pair with Noah Hanifin. Chris Tanev is also a strong defensive force next to the skilled Kylington. Though it’s worth noting Tanev missed Game 7 due to injury.

That outstanding backend makes life easier on Jacob Markström, who followed up a disappointing first season in Calgary with a league-leading nine shutouts and 10.8 goals saved above expected (12th). He was very good at bailing the Flames out with big saves even without facing a ton of rubber in Round 2. That could be a good precursor for what will be asked of him in this series.

Edmonton Wins Because: They have the two best players in the league… and another of the very best in Round 1. Yes, Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl were spectacular, combining for 23 points in Round 1. But Mike Smith was actually about as good. It went incredibly under the radar, but Smith led all netminders in the first round with 10.4 goals above expected. That ranks 0.3 ahead of Oettinger and more than twice as good as the next best goaltender in the first round. That goalie just happens to be Markström, who stopped 4.8. This could make for the best type of series if Smith keeps playing well; one where both the goaltenders dazzle and chances are aplenty.

There’s no secrets when it comes to the Oilers. They’re going to throw Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl at you and bet you can’t stop them. It’s a pretty good bet. Draisaitl and McDavid scored 11 and 7 points, respectively, in just four games against Calgary in the regular season. That’s an average of almost three points per game for the former. McDavid was particularly on another level in Round 1, finishing top in the league with an expected goals share of over 70%. It was probably the best hockey he’s played in his career, especially given the circumstances.

It helps than McDavid and Draisaitl have a better supporting cast than in years past. They wouldn’t have made it here without them, as we’ve seen in previous years. And they’ll need more support from them to reach their first Western Conference Final in 16 years. Evander Kane has not come close to answering all of the questions surrounding his murky exit from San Jose. But he has fit in well on the ice since arriving in Edmonton, finishing top ten in Round 1 scoring with a 69.02% expected goals share to boot. Zach Hyman quietly had the best offensive season of his career on McDavid’s wing, and his grinding, physical style tends to be more effective as the playoffs wear on. Kailer Yamamoto had a strong play-driving first round. Ryan Nugent-Hopkins chipped in five points. Jesse Puljujärvi was quiet but can and has been better.

Those are five other legitimately effective top-six forwards on a team that really only had three (McDavid, Draisaitl, Nugent-Hopkins) just a couple of seasons ago. Calgary’s defense is very good; but it’s one built around being better than the sum of its parts than true stars. That’s very effective against most teams, but perhaps harder to pull off against two of the world’s most dangerous players. That being said, Edmonton’s defense is going to be the key to this series. They were nothing special against a Kings team without any true gamebreakers, finishing 10th in Round 1 in expected goals against per 60. Their PK wasn’t great from a chance prevention standpoint either but did finish a strong 87.5%. Calgary’s PP also struggled to finish in Round 1. Combine that momentum with Edmonton’s unstoppable man-advantage and the Oilers might have the edge in special teams.

But that won’t mean much if they can’t at least contain the Flames at 5-on-5. Other than Evan Bouchard, the Oilers struggle to exit their zone after retrieving the puck, especially with control. The Oilers ranked dead last among playoff teams in the regular season at both successful zone exit percentage and percentage of exits with possession. The good news for Edmonton is that each of their pairs has at least one strong defender at either exiting the zone or holding the blue-line, so there’s no one matchup that screams desperate to be exploited by the Gaudreau line. This series is probably going to be Darnell Nurse’s time to shine. He’ll receive big minutes against Calgary’s best players and needs to prove himself worthy of the 8-year, $74 million extension he inked last summer.

The Pick: The Oilers have a lot of things going for them. Their forward core has both superstar talent and more depth than in recent memory. Mike Smith is playing some of his best hockey of the year. Their special teams are looking strong. And after last year’s playoff disappointment, their on the cusp of their deepest playoff run in over and a decade-and-a-half.

The problem is that Calgary doesn’t have a lot of flaws. Sure, the Flames were pushed to the brink in Round 1. But, and it’s weird to say this, that happened through little fault of their own. They generated plenty of scoring chances. Their best players played well. Markström did his job in net. They just happened to run into a generational goaltending performance from Jake Oettinger; one they overcame just before the clock struck midnight.

There are two ways you can look at the Flames. The first is that if they were pushed so far by Dallas, a stronger Oilers team should be able to knock them off the cliff; especially given the fatigue that sets in from a seven-game series. But the other way is that if the Flames can survive that series, what can’t they survive? McDavid and Draisaitl will test them often, and assuredly break them at times. But if the Flames are ever doubting themselves in this series, they can think back to how impossible beating Oettinger seemed at times. They can take comfort in the knowledge that they overcame that challenge. And thanks to their equally strong forward depth and superior defense, they’ll overcome this challenge, too. Flames in 6.

Here’s Emma Brown’s preview of the other Western Conference Semifinal series.

Oddly Specific Prediction: This is an idea I always borrow from one of the best hockey writers, The Athletic’s Sean McIndoe (aka Down Goes Brown). The idea is very self-explanatory: make a very specific and semi-random prediction for each series. The idea is his; the predictions are mine.

Fighting gets rarer and rarer the deeper we go into the playoffs, and for good reason. Players don’t want to be off the ice for five seconds, let alone five minutes at the biggest time of the year. But sometimes emotions boil over, especially in the Battle of Alberta. Let’s say there’s a Matthew Tkachuk-Evander Kane scrap at some point in this series. And not just an ordinary fight; one that obviously changes the momentum of the game it occurs in, one way or the other.

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All Advanced Stats are 5-on-5 unless otherwise stated and via Natural Stat Trick, Corey Sznajder’s All Three Zones (subscribe to his Patreon here) and Moneypuck.com

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