Flames down Knights in potential playoff preview

Sunday’s showdown between the Calgary Flames and Vegas Golden Knights had the kind of “most important game of the year” narrative surrounding it that is so common at this time of year.

And sure, it might have been the most important game of the year for the Flames… for now… until that title is most likely taken by their March 31st matchup with the San Jose Sharks.  

The Flames will probably play a handful of “most important games of the year” in their final stretch, as they jockey for position – and home ice advantage – heading into the post-season.

But their fourth meeting of the year with the Knights definitely did feel like the stakes were higher than any game in recent memory, as the two teams entered Sunday riding two very different streaks of play.

Four-straight losses for the Flames, and a six-game winning streak for the Golden Knights.

One team looking to change their fortunes, and one looking to stay hot.

The two also had bad blood fresh in their minds, after a meeting just four days prior, when Knights goalie Marc-Andre Fleury earned his league-leading 33rd win of the season, in a game that had all speed and bite of a playoff matchup. The 2-1 Knights victory might have only featured three goals (four, if you count Johnny Gaudreau’s disallowed marker) but it didn’t lack in entertainment, with both teams recording a matching 26 hits, and Matthew Tkachuk further thrusting himself into the “most hated player in the league” conversation.

So less than one hundred hours later – after the Flames failed to win their first game ever at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas – all eyes were on the Flames’ third-year winger.

And as he’s proven throughout his young career, he thrives when the spotlight is pointed at him.

Skating on a reunited 3M line, alongside Mikael Backlund and Michael Frolik, Tkachuk was the most noticeable player on the ice – once again – as the Flames and Knights dropped the puck.

The line combined for 11 points, including Tkachuk’s first career hat-trick (he also added an assist), four helpers from Frolik, and two goals and an assist by Backlund.

The other Flame that managed to beat Knights’ back-up netminder Malcom Subban was Andrew Mangiapane, who opened the scoring with his fourth of the year.

With a final score of 6-3, the Flames victory bumped them back into first place in the Pacific – one point up on the Sharks, who have a game in hand – and kept them firmly in the driver’s seat for post-season home-ice advantage, with an eight-point lead on the Golden Knights.

The Flames have just 13 games remaining in the regular season, with eight of those on home ice, so winning the Pacific division is still a very probable outcome; but if the Flames don’t manage to lock up the Pacific, they would more than likely face these very same Golden Knights in the first round of playoffs.

So how do the Flames matchup, on paper, against Vegas? Let’s take a look.

Head-to-head

The Flames and Golden Knights will not meet again in the 2018-19 regular season, as last night’s game ended their season-series in a 2-2 split, with both teams winning their two games on home ice.

  • November 19 in Calgary: Flames win 7-2
  • November 24 in Las Vegas: Knights win 2-0
  • March 6 in Las Vegas: Knights win 2-1
  • March 10 in Calgary: Flames win 6-3

One thing that is immediately noticeable about the season-series is the difference in the amount of goals scored in Calgary, versus in Vegas. The two teams combined for 18 goals in two contests at the Saddledome, while there were just five goals recorded between the two at T-Mobile Arena. A major reason for this discrepancy is goaltending, with Marc-Andre Fleury starting both games at home, while backup Malcom Subban suited up for the two visits to Calgary; but I’ll have more on the goaltending later.

With this being just the second season for the NHL’s newest franchise, the Golden Knights and Flames don’t have much of a history to look back on. But in their eight regular season meetings the edge goes to Vegas, who are 5-3-0 against Calgary. Both teams average over three goals-per-game against each other, with Calgary netting an average of 3.3 goals and Vegas just behind them at 3.1. Obviously that stat would be heavily skewed for the Flames because of the high-scoring affairs this season at the Saddledome.

Finally, in those eight meetings, we are yet to see the Flames and Golden Knights face-off in overtime, and – as mentioned previously – we are yet to see the Flames secure a win at T-Mobile Arena.

Goaltending

One of the biggest differences between the Flames and Golden Knights is the state of their crease. While Vegas has a proven, elite starter in Marc-Andre Fleury, Calgary’s starter for Game 1 of the post-season still remains a question mark. David Rittich (23-7-5) and Mike Smith (19-13-2) have both had solid stretches this year, but neither goalie has firmly grabbed the title of starter.

The edge for stats would have to go to Rittich:  

  • Rittich: 23-7-5, .911 SV%, 2.65 GAA
  • Smith: 19-13-2, .896 SV%, 2.90 GAA

But the veteran experience and puck handling that Smith provides are intangibles that can’t be quantified.

Rittich has started all four of the Flames’ games against Vegas this year, and has fared well against the Knights:

  • November 19 (7-2 W): 20 saves on 22 shots, .909 SV%
  • November 24 (2-0 L): 26 saves on 28 shots, .929 SV%
  • March 6 (2-1 L): 36 saves on 38 shots, .947 SV%
  • March 10 (6-3 W): 25 saves on 28 shots, .893 SV%

He hasn’t stolen them a game at T-Mobile Arena, where the Flames have struggled to beat Fleury, but he’s given them a chance to win games.

While Fleury is the undisputed number one guy in Vegas, the same can’t be said for Calgary.

Goaltending will be a huge topic of conversation for the Flames as they finish off the regular season and head into the playoffs, and at this point it still remains a toss-up for who will start Game 1 for Calgary.  

Other important stats

Another way you could forecast a potential playoff meeting between the Flames and Golden Knights would be to directly compare their regular season stats. So far this season:

  • Record:
    • Flames: 42-20-7
    • Golden Knights: 38-27-5
  • Home Record:
    • Flames: 21-7-5
    • Golden Knights: 21-10-4
  • Away Record:
    • Flames: 21-13-2
    • Golden Knights: 17-17-1
  • Goal Differential:
    • Flames: +42 (3rd in NHL)
    • Golden Knights: +16 (11th in NHL)
  • Power Play:
    • Flames: 21.9% (9th in NHL)
    • Golden Knights: 17.2% (22nd in NHL)
  • Penalty Kill:
    • Flames: 79.5% (22nd in NHL)
    • Golden Knights: 81.8% (7th in NHL)
  • Short-handed goals:
    • Flames: 16 SHG (1st in NHL)
    • Golden Knights: 8 SHG (7th in NHL)

Obviously those aren’t all of the statistical categories you could compare, but in those seven, Calgary has the edge in six.

The topic of home-ice advantage is huge surrounding the Golden Knights because Vegas has such an insane atmosphere inside of T-Mobile Arena, but the Flames have just as many wins on home ice as the Knights do this season. The theatrics of Las Vegas could go head-to-head with the Red Mile and C of Red. The Flames may not have won a game in Vegas yet, but their record on the road is better than the Knights’.

Conclusion

All this research and discussion could be for nothing, if say the Flames clinch first in the Pacific and the Knights get knocked out in round 1; but if you’re into gambling – as most people who go to Las Vegas are – the odds are good that we’ll see the two meet again this year. A 2-2-0 regular season series was entertaining enough that you wouldn’t hear many people complain if the two did indeed meet in the post-season, and with just 13 games remaining for the Flames, we won’t have to wait long to find out their first round opponent.

— Road to the Red Mile (Danica Ferris & Jake Foster)

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