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Stanley Cup playoffs preview: Unlocked Flames should cleanly handle Stars

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In a reversal of outcomes — and, hey, perhaps fortunes — the Calgary Flames will tangle with the Dallas Stars in Round 1 of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. It was a five-goal comeback from the Arizona Coyotes over the Nashville Predators which set up the opening-round meeting, so who said the Coyotes wouldn't factor into the 2021-22 NHL season?

But regardless of it being the Predators or Stars, the Flames remain serious and deserving favourites. Following an immensely disappointing season and the exit of long-time captain Mark Giordano through expansion, just about everything the Flames have done from a team-building standpoint has worked out wonderfully. Blake Coleman was a smash hit in free agency. Tyler Toffoli and Calle Jarnkrok were a tremendous finds in the trade market. Oliver Kylington's promotion has been an enormous success. Nikita Zadorov and Erik Gudbranson have worked out fine on the third pair.

What had the most profound change for the Flames, however, was an option available to them all along. Darryl Sutter, who has proven unequivocally that he's the right person to coach this team, broke up the long-time partnership of Johnny Gaudreau and Sean Monahan, and in the process untapped the potential of this team.

Gaudreau and linemates Elias Lindholm and Matthew Tkachuk formed the single-most dominant line in the sport this season. Gaudreau is likely to be nominated for the Hart Trophy. Lindholm will earn Selke Trophy consideration, if not a nomination. Tkachuk exceeded the 100-point threshold after previously topping out at 77. He's likely to be a first- or second-team All-Star.

Re-imagining the No. 1 line in Calgary has completely changed the team's trajectory. It's had the Flames meet the potential many laid out for them in previous seasons.

Behind the No. 1 line, Sutter has established Sutter hockey. This team plays hard and in straight lines. It possesses the puck at an elite level. It has quality defenders. It has a supremely talented netminder in Jacob Markstrom. If it feels like the early 2010s Los Angeles Kings, that's because it's a formula that has gone unchanged for the likely Jack Adams winner.

Darryl Sutter has the Flames rolling entering the playoffs. (Photo by Jonathan Kozub/NHLI via Getty Images)
Darryl Sutter has the Flames rolling entering the playoffs. (Photo by Jonathan Kozub/NHLI via Getty Images)

The Stars, meanwhile, are just two seasons removed from the Stanley Cup Final, and, for better or worse, not much has changed. This team is still receiving inadequate contributions from its high-priced duo of Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn. Balancing that out, there are still several standout players who fly well under the radar. It's a team that leans heavily still on its high-performing netminders, even if Ben Bishop and Anton Khudobin are no longer in the picture.

It seems that they still have potential, but that the Stars are missing something. Something vital.

What have you done for me lately?

Calgary has clicked at a high level for what seems like the entire season, but it was the Flames' performance over the last three months that saw them run away with the division title. They closed on a 29-8-5 run since Feb. 1, racking up more points than any other team in the league over that 42-game stretch.

Predictably, the underlying numbers match the results; it's why many consider the Flames to be a value bet at the start of the playoffs.

Dallas, too, was solid throughout the back half of the season, squeaking into the top 10 in points over the last three months. The difference is the Stars had a negative even-strength goal differential and the underlying numbers suggest they were overachieving at the time.

                      

The Flames will win if...

Nothing changes. All the data points to the Flames being a superior team. Barring seismic shifts in the information we have, their advantages should come to the fore across a seven-game sample.

The Stars will win if...

The Robertson-Hintz-Pavelski line runs wild. Because this team can't count on Benn and Seguin.

Series Hero

Markstrom picked the wrong time to have such an outstanding season. Overshadowed by the New York Rangers' Igor Shesterkin, Markstrom had a Vezina Trophy-calibre season for the Flames, posting 37 wins, nine shutouts and .922 save percentage.

Markstrom could very well take some of the oxygen back from Shesterkin if his fine form helps Calgary embark on a long run.

The Fernando Pisani Trophy (Unsung Hero)

Jason Robertson is one of the most anonymous 40-goal scorers in NHL history, and admittedly someone who shouldn't be drawing Fernando Pisani comparisons. The third-year forward hit 41 goals on the season to more than double his career high with a red-hot run down the stretch.

Robertson should be considered priority No. 1 for the Flames from a tactical standpoint in their defensive preparations.

Prediction

Flames in five.

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