The NHL Stanley Cup Qualifiers kick off the Return to Play plan on August 1. This week, PHT will be previewing each series with a look at storylines and end with our predictions for the eight matchups.
(8) Calgary Flames vs. (9) Winnipeg Jets
Saturday, Aug. 1: Jets vs. Flames, 10:30 p.m. ET – NBCSN
Monday, Aug. 3: Jets vs. Flames, 2:30 p.m. ET – NBCSN
Tuesday, Aug. 4: Flames vs. Jets, 4:45 p.m. ET – NBCSN
Thursday, Aug. 6: Flames vs. Jets*, TBD
Saturday, Aug. 8: Jets vs. Flames*, TBD
* – if necessary
Can Hellebuyck get some help?
Connor Hellebuyck is a deserved Vezina Trophy finalist who has a real strong chance at winning the award. Another trophy he should have garnered more support for is the Hart. His play is a big reason why the Jets are apart of the 24-team Return to Play and weren’t further down the standings. He faced the most shots (1,796), made the most saves (1,656), recorded the most shutouts (six) and was a workhorse playing nearly 3,300 minutes this season. His .929 even strength save percentage was fifth in the NHL.
His value to the Jets was on display as he faced 37-plus shots in 13 games and posted a .948 save percentage during that period. Hellebuyck also finished behind fellow Vezina finalist Tuukka Rask in goals saved above average (14.33), a metric that measures the number of goals saved based on the goalie’s save percentage and shots faced given the league average in those categories. (The Jets netminder played nearly 900 more 5-on-5 minutes than Rask.)
If the Jets can consistency — and we know they have the weapons — and Hellebuyck continues his dominance, Winnipeg could be a dangerous team in the West.
Cam Talbot vs. David Rittich
Flames interim head coach Geoff Ward has a decision to make in goal. And like other NHL coaches in his position he is using training camp to make his choice. Does he go with Rittich, who handled most of the workload during the regular season (48 starts), or Talbot, who started seven of the Flames’ last 12 games before the pause?
The four-month break was a great equalizer for goalie battles around this league. This one is no different. Talbot posted a .924 even strength save percentage in 26 appearances versus Rittich’s .913. Talbot has the postseason experience, but Rittich established himself as a No. 1 this season.
Whatever Ward’s decision is for Game 1, the question should then be how long the leash is in a best-of-five series. There will be little room for error and it will already be difficult going up against a Vezina Trophy finalist.
How quickly can Flames’ top line re-gel?
After “circumstances” caused them to be apart for the start of camp, the top line of Johnny Gaudreau, Sean Monahan, and Elias Lindholm reunited last week. Gaudreau had been skating with a second group, which caused Flames GM Brad Treliving to deny it was COVID-19 or disciplinary related.
They combined for 38 points in over 500 minutes together and were a positive possession trio (53%) at 5-on-5 during the regular season, per Natural Stat Trick. A balanced attack will be important to get by Winnipeg, but it will all start with the top line producing regularly.
Who’s out? Who might return?
Flames: Travis Hamonic was the first NHL player to announce he would be opting out due to personal reasons.
Jets: Earlier this month Jets head coach Paul Maurice confirmed that Bryan Little will not participate this summer. The forward suffered a perforated eardrum, which required surgery, after taking a shot to the ear in November.
Up and down special teams
Both the Flames and Jets saw vast improvements in their power plays once the calendar turned to 2020. From opening night to New Year’s Eve, they were middle of the pack (Winnipeg: 19.2%, Calgary 18.7%). But everything began to click with the man advantage in January, and they hit over 22% before the pause (Winnipeg: 22.4%, Calgary: 25.7%).
Meanwhile, the penalty kills have flip-flopped in that same span. The Flames owned a top five unit (83.8%) and the Jets were dead last (71.4%) through Jan. 1. That all switched in the second half with Calgary dropping to 78.3% and Winnipeg vaulting up to 85.5%.
Special teams are always vital in the playoffs and it will be interesting to see how games are called in empty rinks. Will officials feel less pressure to make calls knowing the fans won’t be on their backs?
• 2020 NHL Stanley Cup Qualifiers schedule
• A look at the Western Conference matchups
• Previewing the Eastern Conference
Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.