Sergei Belski-USA TODAY Sports
In the 2021-22 regular season, the Calgary Flames had the NHL’s sixth-best offense (averaging 3.55 goals-for-per-game) and the third-best defense (averaging 2.51 goals-against per game).
Flames head coach Darryl Sutter’s structure, and star goalie Jacob Markstrom have been key contributors to the team’s defensive successes, and although flashy forwards Johnny Gaudreau and Matthew Tkachuk may get more of the spotlight, the fact the Flames can beat you any way you want to play – including a wildly high-scoring game, as we got in Calgary’s 9-6 win over Edmonton in Game 1 of their second-round series Wednesday – is what should bolster the Stanley Cup hopes of their fans.
Right from the start of the regular season, Calgary’s potent balance of offense and defense was on full display: in their six-game win streak that began in the third game of the schedule, the Flames scored four or more goals five times, and they allowed only seven goals in that span, including three shutouts from Markstrom. In Calgary’s first 19 games, they posted a whopping seven shutouts. The rest of the season, the Flames scored at least five goals in 21 of their wins. When they were working with the puck, they were always a danger, and they could limit offensive chances in their own end with an underrated defense corps.
And then, once the post-season began, they underscored their defensive prowess in a seven-game series win over the Dallas Stars. In Calgary’s four wins against the Stars, they limited Dallas to only five goals. Markstrom put up a shutout in their 1-0 Game One win over Dallas, and in the six games that made up the rest of the series, his save percentage was .923 or higher five times. You couldn’t ask for more than what Markstrom was delivering.
And while it’s true Markstrom didn’t have his best game in Calgary’s first showdown with Edmonton, his .786 SP from Game One is an aberration unlikely to repeat. He and his Flames teammates bent as the Oilers erased a three-goal lead, but they didn’t break, as Calgary scored the final three goals of the night, including two goals from Tkachuk that gave him a hat trick.
It was far from a perfect game for the Flames, but look at the other team – the Oilers team that had to pull starting goalie Mike Smith after he allowed three goals on Calgary’s first 10 shots through the first six minutes of action; the same Oilers team that got an .865 SP from backup Mikko Koskinen in relief of Smith – and you’ll see the Flames have every right to feel they have the clear goaltending advantage in this year’s Battle of Alberta.
You know Darryl Sutter was displeased with his team’s defensive efforts Wednesday, and that’s it’s fair to anticipate Calgary will be in lockdown mode for Game Two. But can the Oilers clean up their game enough to outscore the Flames? There’s reason for doubt: in Edmonton’s three losses in the first round against the L.A. Kings, they allowed four or more goals each time. The Oilers got a great game from Smith in their Game Seven, 2-0 blanking of the Kings, but Calgary is a much better, deeper offensive menace than L.A. was.
Team depth may ultimately decide the winner of the Flames/Oilers showdown – Calgary did benefit from big nights in Game One from forwards Andrew Mangiapane (one goal, three points) and center Blake Coleman (two goals), and defenseman Rasmus Andersson (two assists, three points) – but everyone knows goaltending is often the difference between playoff glory and playoff letdown.
As it stands, Calgary has the better goalie in Markstrom – and they’ve got the offense to back him up when he has an off night. For that reason, and unless Smith or Koskinen stand on their heads in the games ahead, this series could be shorter than many projected.