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If you were looking for a western feel in Edmonton this summer, you can’t get much better than the ‘Stampede City’ set to duel against the ‘Lone Star State.’
The official first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs begins today and one of the marquee matchups Canadian fans will be tuning in for will be the third-ranked Dallas Stars facing the eighth-seeded Calgary Flames.
Calgary of course is coming off a four-game qualification series victory over the Winnipeg Jets, who themselves lost key offensive weapons in the series and were no match for the healthy Flames.
This best-of-seven matchup against the Stars will likely be Calgary’s first true test in these COVID-19 playoffs, as they will take to the ice against an energized Dallas club.
Both Ben Bishop and Tyler Seguin are expected to play in Game 1 on Tuesday according to Stars interim head coach Rick Bowness after the pair missed Sunday’s round-robin finale against St. Louis.
Despite Dallas receiving a bye into the first round due to being a top-four team in the Western Conference, only three points separated themselves and the Flames in the regular season standings.
Both Calgary and Dallas followed similar trajectories this year in terms of points, expectations, and promoting interim coaches amid controversial mid-season switches.
Edge: Calgary Flames
Calgary gets the edge at forward by the slimmest of margins, as both the Flames and Stars have seen their high-end players struggle throughout the season.
Wingers Johnny Gaudreau and Jamie Benn have posted some of the lowest offensive numbers of their respective careers this year, while down the middle both Sean Monahan and Tyler Seguin have been serviceable, if not spectacular.
Likely, it will be whichever dynamic duo finds their game in the best-of-seven will be the ones to lead their team to victory.
Aside from Joe Pavelski, every Dallas forward failed to record more than a single point in the round-robin stage and the team enters playoffs with the third-lowest goals scored (178) in the entire league.
Calgary’s forward group was a bit more productive against the Jets with Monahan, Gaudreau, Mikael Backlund, Sam Bennett, and Elias Lindholm all scoring multiple goals in the series.
Although Dallas’ role players like Denis Gurianov and Rope Hintz can dial into their offensive game, it can be argued that Calgary’s middle-two lines and depth were the difference in victory over Winnipeg.
Edge: Dallas Stars
When the final whistle sounds on this best-of-seven series, Stars defence man Miro Heiskanen may skate away as the most important player on the ice.
Heiskanen has grown into one of the league’s most promising young blueliners and that is showing in his ice time, averaging well over 23 minutes a night.
Calgary’s defensive core is indeed more experienced than Dallas’ group, however they lack the game-breaking talent that the Stars possess in Heiskanen and John Klingberg when he is on his game.
Mark Giordano has struggled to replicate last year’s Norris Trophy winning campaign, recording just 31 points in 60 games which marks his lowest totals in a complete season since 2012.
The Flames’ duo of Rasmus Andersson and Noah Hanifin played well against Winnipeg and were arguably the team’s best pairing, though the Stars can counter with Esa Lindell and a shutdown pairing of Heiskanen and Jamie Oleksiak.
Ultimately, Calgary will need their defence to be more responsible than Dallas’ due to the Stars also holding the advantage between the pipes.
Edge: Dallas Stars
For as well as Cam Talbot played for Calgary in their qualification round series, this category on paper isn’t even close.
Dallas boasts one of the most consistent goaltenders of the past three seasons in Ben Bishop, who quietly put together one of the best resumes in the league with a 21-16-4 record, a 2.50 goals against average, and most importantly a .920 save percentage.
If that wasn’t enough for the Flames, Bishop’s backup in Anton Khudobin proved to be one of the best relief netminders in the NHL with a sparkling .930 save percentage in 30 games.
Like they did against the Jets with Connor Hellebuyck, Calgary will need to throw everything they can at the Stars goaltending tandem who have the ability to steal this series.
Talbot’s play was a welcomed surprise for the Flames with just six goals allowed in four games against Winnipeg, but he will need to be even better to keep Dallas’ arsenal of Benn, Seguin, and Alexander Radulov at bay.
Edge: Calgary Flames
Less than five minutes into his first game against Winnipeg, Matthew Tkachuk became public enemy no. 1 after his hit the took out Mark Schiefele for the remainder of the series.
While it was an unintentional result (unless you as Paul Maurice), the effect from that hit and the ensuing fight with Jets captain Blake Wheeler lit a fire under the series.
Calgary will no doubt be looking for that same energy from the offensively talented pest again in Game 1 against the Stars on Tuesday, whether that be a hit, goal, or just getting under the skin of Dallas.
While the Stars do have players like Corey Perry and Pavelski who can play that agitating game as well, few do it as effectively and as often as Tkachuk.
Calgary also holds the advantage on special teams heading into this series, as they recorded better numbers on the power play (21.2%) and penalty kill (82.1%) than the Stars during the regular season.
Those numbers became even more inflated in the small sample size of the qualifying round, with Calgary ranking third in power play at 29.4% and seventh in penalty kill at 88.2%.