2011-2012 season preview: Calgary Flames

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2010-2011 record: 41-29-12, 94 points; 2nd in Northwest, 10th in West

Playoffs: Did not qualify

Calgary is one of the most curious and maddening teams to follow. The Flames have been inconsistent at times, tough and brilliant at others thanks to Jarome Iginla. That said, they’ve been a non-playoff team the last two seasons. Can the Flames forget about the slumps and learn to embrace consistency?

Offense

Scoring was not an issue in Calgary last season. The Flames were seventh in the NHL in goals scored and had seven players earn 40-plus points. Iginla was again Mr. Everything in Calgary leading the team in points with 86 and scoring 43 goals. Alex Tanguay and Olli Jokinen will try and show that last season wasn’t a flash in the pan offensively while Rene Bourque is emerging as a force on the left wing. Scrappy winger Curtis Glencross will also look to keep his production rolling along as well.

The Flames will need to get more from the center position and the likes of Brendan Morrison (once he’s healthy) as well as Mikael Backlund and Matthew Stajan. Newly acquired Lee Stempniak should help keep things balanced on the right side and give Calgary a steady 20-plus goal effort.

Defense

Calgary’s top four shape up to be rather decent. Adding Scott Hannan helps give them a steady defensive presence while Mark Giordano is one of the best kept secrets in the NHL when it comes to point production on the blue line. Anton Babchuk gives them a booming shot on the power play and Jay Bouwmeester is just quiet and steady as he goes. Cory Sarich, Chris Butler, and Brett Carson round out the pack that will try to keep things quiet for Miikka Kiprusoff in goal. There’s solid play here, but they need to be stronger defensively.

source: APGoalies

Miikka Kiprusoff had a below-average year for himself last season finishing with a goals against average of 2.63. The Flames, however, hope to give Kiprusoff a bit more rest as he gets older. Last season, Kiprusoff was third in the league in minutes played and his backup Henrik Karlsson has to play stronger and earn coach Brent Sutter’s trust more. How Kiprusoff holds up and plays is key to the Flames’ success. A few more nights off would go a long way towards helping him play at his best.

Coaching

Brent Sutter enters his third season as the Flames’ coach and while the Flames have done all right in earning 90-plus points in both previous seasons, the team has yet to make the playoffs with him at the helm. Should Calgary get off to a slow start like how they did last season, the calls for Sutter to be fired will roar quickly. GM Jay Feaster inherited Sutter as his coach, so don’t expect him to sit and wait around for Sutter to fix things if the losses pile up early. In such a questionably talented division Calgary could bully other teams to win. Failure isn’t an option for Sutter.

source: Getty ImagesBreakout candidate

The time is now for Mikael Backlund to prove his worth. At 22 years-old he’s the lone Calgary prospect showing that he can make it in the NHL. After struggling to establish himself as a force last year scoring just 10 goals In 73 games and winding up with just 25 points, if he can break out he’ll provide a huge lift to the Flames offense and make them all the more dangerous there. Earning Sutter’s trust would go a long way to doing that as he averaged just over 12 minutes of ice time per game last season. It’s tough to leave your mark when you’re twiddling your thumbs on the bench.

Best-case scenario

Iginla does the same thing he did last year and dominates play night in and night out and brings all of his linemates along for the ride as well. Getting repeat performances from Jokinen and Tanguay would go a long way to helping that. Seeing continued growth from Bourque and Glencross with another 25-plus goal season would help out too. Giordano and Babchuk make the Flames’ power play one to be feared season-long while Kiprusoff bounces back in a big way to show why he’s one of the better goalies in the league and leads the Flames into the playoffs without much stress.

Reality

Slow starts and poor stretches of play have ruined the last two seasons for the Flames. Avoiding that meddling stretch of play will be key for Calgary as they’ve shown they can keep up with the best in the West, they just haven’t been able to produce that full season of effort to get to the postseason. Iginla’s health (he’s had back spasm issues in training camp) puts the Flames on a dangerous brink. If those issues linger season-long, the Flames are in trouble. Both Iginla and Kiprusoff have to be the All-Stars here to get Calgary back to the playoffs. If their defense can’t hold it together and Kiprusoff has to be beyond brilliant on a nightly basis, the Flames will find their playoff hopes coming down to the final games all over again.

The Buzzer: Jets move on, Flyers stay in it, Hammond steals one for Avs

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Three games on Friday night

Winnipeg Jets 5, Minnesota Wild 0 (Jets win series 4-1)

Technically the original Winnipeg Jets advanced a few times, but these are the new Winnipeg Jets. And the new Winnipeg Jets, after spending nearly two decades without a postseason win, let alone a series win, finally moved on to round two with a rout over a shorthanded, undermanned, and completely overmatched Minnesota Wild team. The Jets now await the winner of the Nashville Predators-Colorado Avalanche series. This game was never close, never competitive, and the Jets look like they are going to be a force to deal with.

Philadelphia Flyers 4, Pittsburgh Penguins 2 (Penguins lead series 3-2)

Sean Couturier returned, Michal Neuvirth got the start in goal, and together they helped shut down the Pittsburgh Penguins to send the series back to Philadelphia for Game 6 on Sunday afternoon. Couturier did not play his normal workload but he was incredible on the penalty kill and scored the game-winning goal with 1:18 to play in regulation.

Colorado Avalanche 2, Nashville Predators 1 (Predators lead series 3-2)

The Colorado Avalanche are not going away. Thanks to an unbelievable and unexpected performance from, of all people, Andrew Hammond. After the Predators struck first with just under 10 minutes to play in regulation, the Avalanche scored two goals in the final five minutes of regulation. Sven Andrighetto scored the winner with just a minute-and-a-half to play.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

Three Stars

1. Andrew Hammond, Colorado Avalanche. He barely played the past two years, but man did he come through in a big way on Friday night. He stopped 44 of the 45 shots he faced — and the only goal he allowed was a controversial overturn on a Nick Bonino redirection with his skate — to help the Avalanche fight off elimination. It was Hammond’s first ever playoff win.

2. Sean Couturier, Philadelphia Flyers. How could he not be in here for the game he played? The whole storyline that you want is there. Returning from injury, playing a great game, doing a lot of little things that do not always get noticed, then scoring the game-winning goal to keep his team’s season going for at least one game.

3. Mark Schiefele, Winnipeg Jets. A lot of stars for the Jets on Friday night. Their goalie, Connor Hellebuyck, recorded his second consecutive shutout (more on that in a minute), Paul Stastny and Dustin Byfuglien each had a pair of assists, Jacoub Trouba started everything with all the offense they would need just 31 seconds into the game, but let us go with Mark Schiefele as one of the stars. He set up Trouba’s early goal, scored a goal of his own, and finished with a game-high four shots on goal and six total shot attempts

 

Factoid of the night

The Winnipeg Jets can score goals with the best of them and they also, finally, have a goalie.

Saturday’s schedule

New Jersey Devils vs. Tampa Bay Lightning, 3 p.m. ET
Columbus Blue Jackets vs. Washington Capitalas, 3 p.m. ET
Boston Bruins vs. Toronto Maple Leafs, 7 p.m ET

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Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Sean Couturier returned and helped save the Flyers’ season

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PITTSBURGH — After four straight blowouts to open their first-round series, the Pittsburgh Penguins and Philadelphia Flyers finally played a close game on Friday night. Thanks to a goalie switch that saw Michal Neuvirth replace Brian Elliott, and a couple of smaller lineup changes, as well as the return of one of their best players — Sean Couturier — the Flyers were able to keep their season alive with a 4-2 win to force a Game 6 in Philadelphia on Sunday afternoon. (3 p.m. ET, NBC).

Couturier missed Game 4 due to a lower-body injury, but was able to return to the lineup on Friday to play the role of hero, scoring the game-winning goal with 1:18 to play in the third period.

The goal came after the Penguins were sloppy with the puck in their own zone and failed to clear on two different occasions, allowing the puck to come to a wide open Couturier at the blue line. From there, he fired a long-distance shot that deflected off of Penguins defenseman Brian Dumoulin and into the back of the net.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

Given that he was limited to just 16:55 of ice-time and did not play on the power play at all, it was pretty clear that he was not anywhere close to 100 percent. Just consider that during the regular season he averaged more than 21 minutes per game and was playing more than 24 minutes in the first three games of the series. He refused to say after the game how he was feeling (he was twice asked to put a percentage on it and refused both times) but it was obviously enough to make an impact in what was to this point the biggest game of the Flyers’ season.

“I was just trying to take it one shift at a time, win your one-on-one battles, keep it simple,” Couturier said when asked what his mindset was. “Don’t want to overdo things or overthink the game. That was kind of the mentality I had, just keep it simple, keep my shifts short, make sure I was ready to go and fresh for the next shift.”

While his game-winning goal will be the moment that everybody remembers until puck drop on Sunday, it was his play on the penalty kill — and the Flyers’ penalty kill as a whole — that was probably the difference in the game.

Heading into this series the special teams matchup was going to be an important one to watch because the Penguins had the NHL’s best power play during the regular season. The Flyers, conversley, had one of the league’s worst penalty kills. Throughout the first four games when the Penguins power play clicked — and when the Flyers gave them ample opportunity to allow it to click — the Penguins won decisively.

On Friday, it most definitely did not click. And just as was the case in Game 2, the Flyers were able to win based on the strength of that penalty kill.

More than 40 percent of Couturier’s ice-time on Friday night came with the Flyers shorthanded. During that time he helped the Flyers not only go a perfect 5-for-5, but also score a shorthanded goal and completely shut down the Penguins’ power play, limiting the unit to just four shots on goal. At one point in the second period the Penguins had a 4-on-3 power play for more than a minute-and-a-half and not only failed to score, they failed to get a shot on goal and only attempted one (it was blocked, naturally, by Couturier). Couturier was the lone Flyer forward on the ice for almost the entire situation.

“We did a good job, but they had a lot of chances,” said Couturier of the Flyers’ PK. “[Neuvirth] bailed us out a few times, and we have to be more disciplined. That is too many penalties. We put ourselves in trouble because they can take over the game when they go on the power play. It’s tough to gain momentum. Tonight we fought hard, found a way to win.”

From almost the minute he arrived in the NHL at the start of the 2011-12 season Couturier has been one of the league’s top defensive forwards, even if he wasn’t always recognized for it in awards voting. Even though it is a defensive award, it still almost always goes to a player that also has huge offensive numbers. After getting elevated to the team’s top-line this season and playing alongside Claude Giroux, he went on to have a breakout year offensively that saw him shatter all of his previous career highs, scoring 31 goals and recording 76 total points. On Wednesday, it was announced that he is, for the first time, a finalist for the Selke Trophy as the NHL’s top defensive forward.

“Him being in the lineup gives a boost to everybody just because of what he means to our hockey team,” said Flyers coach Dave Hakstol. “At the end of the day it comes down to going out and doing the job. He did that. Obviously he played a few less minutes tonight than he normally does, but I thought he did a heck of a job, especially on the PK, where was a huge factor for us. His play down the stretch was great, not just on the game-winning goal.”

It was not just Couturier’s return to the lineup that made an impact for the Flyers on Friday.

Hakstol also made a number of lineup changes (Dale Weise and Robert Hagg in; Travis Sanheim and Oskar Lindblom out) including the decision to go with Neuvirth in net after he had played just 59 minutes of hockey over the past three months.

It turned out to be a huge call.

After getting horrendous goaltending in three of the first four games, Neuvirth stopped 30 of the 32 shots he faced on Friday. The two goals he did allow were not great (a bad wraparound goal to Bryan Rust; a shot through the five-hole by Jake Guentzel off the rush) but he did end up making the save of the night in the final minute of regulation, just moments after Couturier’s goal to give the Flyers the lead, when he robbed Sidney Crosby on the doorstep.

With that, a series that has been defined by blowouts and lopsided scores is now a little more interesting as the Flyers return home and look to push it to a seventh game.

If they get goaltending and penalty kill work like they did on Friday, they will.

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Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Jets chase Dubnyk, eliminate Wild in Game 5

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Friday’s Game 5 against the Winnipeg Jets was do-or-die for the Minnesota Wild. It turned out someone may have forgotten to tell the Wild.

Despite not having Josh Morrissey, Dmitry Kulikov, Toby Enstrom, Mathieu Perreault and Nikolaj Ehlers in Game 5, the Jets roared out to a 4-0 start through 20 minutes, chasing Devan Dubnyk, en route to a 5-0 win to advance to the second round.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

Dubnyk lasted just 11:59, as he allowed four goals on 10 shots and was replaced by Alex Stalock.

Jacob Trouba started the party in Winnipeg scoring just 31 seconds into the game:

Bryan Little, Brandon Tanev and Joel Armia also found the back of the net for the Jets. Mark Scheifele added a power-play tally early in the third frame to extend their lead to 5-0.

The Wild were better in the second period, but they still couldn’t figure out Connor Hellebuyck, who ended up making 30 saves for his second straight shutout.

This is the third year in a row that Minnesota has been bounced in the opening round. In 2016, they were eliminated in six games by the Dallas Stars and last year they watched St. Louis take them down in five.

Even though they finished the year with over a 100 points, it’s another disappointing end for Bruce Boudreau’s squad. It’s tough to envision them making major changes to the roster because Zach Parise and Ryan Suter are under contract for six more years. It’ll be interesting to see what they can do to shake up this roster or their staff. General manager Chuck Fletcher has some work to do this summer.

As for the Jets, they move on to face the winner of the Nashville Predators and Colorado Avalanche series. Winnipeg definitely looked explosive in Game 5, and they’ll need to keep rolling if they want to reach the Western Conference Final.

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

Michal Neuvirth gets Game 5 start for Flyers; Couturier returns to lineup

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With their season on the line on Friday night the Philadelphia Flyers are making a change in goal.

Michal Neuvirth, who has played just 59 minutes of NHL hockey since Feb. 18, will get the Game 5 start in goal when they take on the Pittsburgh Penguins.

Neuvirth replaced Brian Elliott in Philadelphia’s Game 4 loss on Wednesday night after Elliott gave up three goals on 17 shots, the second time he was benched in the first four games. The Flyers have already used three goalies in this series with Elliott, Neuvirth, and Petr Mrazek all getting playing time. None of them have played well.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

When healthy Neuvirth had the best numbers out of the group during the regular season, but health has been a constant battle for him the past few years.

The other big lineup news for the Flyers on Friday will be the fact that center Sean Couturier will be returning after sitting out Game 4 with a lower body injury. He may not be 100 percent, however, given that he took pregame line rushes on the team’s third line between Scott Laughton and Wayne Simmonds. Valtteri Filppula was skating on the first line alongside Claude Giroux and Jakub Voracek.

Among the other changes for the Flyers: Robert Hagg will replace Travis Sanheim on defense, while Dale Weise will play on the fourth-line instead of Oskar Lindblom.

Related: Penguins will not have Patric Hornqvist in Game 5

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Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.