EDMONTON — I’ll spare you the suspense and cut to the chase: The Winnipeg Jets are going to beat the Calgary Flames in the best-of-five qualifying round series that gets underway Saturday night here.
Don’t mistake this for being a “homer.” I’d be the first to tell you if I thought the local hockey club was going to get bounced, just as I did prior to the start of last year’s Stanley Cup playoffs. No, my prediction is based entirely on what I’ve seen on the ice during a regular-season that seems like a lifetime ago, along with a more recent body of work in the form of each team’s exhibition tune-up this week at Rogers Place.
It really boils down to one key factor in my eyes: The Jets have Connor Hellebuyck in net. The Flames do not. In fact, I can’t even tell you who’s going to be between the pipes for Calgary in Game 1. David Rittich? Cam Talbot? A local Zamboni driver?
In a tight-checking sprint to the finish line, where there’s not a lot to separate each club on paper and not much room for error, the stark goaltending contrast gives Winnipeg a marked advantage.
Hellebuyck is having a career year, and he appeared to pick up where he left off with a 37-save effort in Wednesday night’s dress rehearsal against Vancouver. He’s a finalist for the Vezina Trophy, and he should win in a landslide.
Could he suddenly spring a leak? Sure, anything’s possible. Which is why forecasting winners and losers before the puck has even dropped can be a bit of a fool’s errand. But what fun would it be if we didn’t stick our neck out every once in a while?
However, to put my mind at ease, I went looking for a brilliant hockey brain to pick. Enter Todd Woodcroft, who knows both these clubs as well as anyone.
Woodcroft served as Calgary’s director of scouting between 2013 and 2016, meaning his fingerprints are all over the current roster. Current Flames stars such as Sean Monahan, Matthew Tkachuk, Sam Bennett, Andrew Mangiapane, Dillon Dube, Rasmus Andersson and Oliver Kylington all got drafted by the organization during his tenure.
The man affectionately known as “Woody” left the organization in the summer of 2016 to take an assistant coaching job with the Jets, remaining on Paul Maurice’s staff until this past April when he accepted a head coaching gig with the University of Vermont.
Woodcroft has had a busy week, adding a pair of intriguing names to his coaching staff. Ex-Jets defenceman Mark Stuart is coming on board as a volunteer assistant coach, and long-time NHL bench boss Mike Babcock will serve as a volunteer advisor. Despite that, Woodcroft is keeping a close watch on what’s happening inside the NHL bubble, where his loyalties are about to get tested in a big way.
“If there was a way they could meet in the finals, I’d be the happiest,” Woodcroft told me on the phone Friday. “Obviously my heart is with Winnipeg for the rest of my life, but I have an affinity for those guys (Calgary) as well.”
The connections run deep. Calgary coach Geoff Ward gave Woodcroft’s older brother, Craig, his first coaching opportunity in Germany, bringing him on as an associate in 2014, where they led Adler Mannheim to the league championship. Craig is now running Dinamo Minsk in the KHL.
Woodcroft agreed with my not-so-hot take that Hellebuyck will be the X-factor.
“If he’s playing how he’d been playing (prior to the NHL pause), I don’t think there’s a team in the West, or the East, that can beat him. He’s in that zone,” said Woodcroft, comparing him to how “locked in” St. Louis goalie Jordan Binnington was during the Blues’ run to the Cup last year, which included bouncing the Jets in the first round.
“If you have Connor playing at his best, he’s going to be a hard guy to beat,” said Woodcroft.
And that’s where all eyes should be on Calgary’s Matthew Tkachuk, who can beat you on the scoreboard and in the alley, and takes great delight in trying to make life miserable for opponents, especially the guy in the crease,
“He has that ability to get under people’s skin and piss people off. I can see him getting in an elevator, pushing all the buttons, then getting off on the third floor and running away laughing,” Woodcroft joked.
Calgary has plenty of other skill up front including Monahan, Mangiapane, Johnny Gaudreau, Elias Lindholm and shutdown centre Mikael Backlund, but Tkachuk is the one usually steering the ship, not to mention stirring the pot.
“It’s easy to have everybody hate you, but when you can be hated and respected for how hard you play, your offensive output, your defensive structure…Matthew is a special player, If Calgary is going to win, they’re going to need the most out of Tkachuk,” said Woodcroft.
His advice to his former players on the Jets — keep your cool and stay out of the box.
“So when Tkachuk comes in there and says he doesn’t like your family or that your skates are ugly, you gotta learn to not worry about it and take one in the chops. The only thing that matters is winning. Don’t get sucked in,” said Woodcroft, who believes Rittich will be Calgary’s yet-to-be-named starter.
The Jets have plenty of firepower to make you pay with the likes of Patrik Laine, Kyle Connor, Mark Scheifele, Blake Wheeler and Nikolaj Ehlers on the top two lines, giving them a slight advantage in that department. And Winnipeg’s bottom six looks a lot more potent than Calgary’s, especially a third line with Adam Lowry, Andrew Copp and Jack Roslovic which will be tasked with trying to shut down the Flames
On the blue-line, Winnipeg’s much-maligned group should stack up well with the Flames, who are without Travis Hamonic due to him opting out of the return-to-play for personal family reasons.
“Hamonic has been one of those guys who has been a steady, steady player his whole life. Does nothing anybody is going to say ‘Wow, he’s unbelievable at this.’ His presence inside the locker room will probably be missed, too, because he’s very well respected,” said Woodcroft.
Calgary will bring a heavy forecheck on Winnipeg, not to mention a very active defence that will try to force the Jets into defensive and neutral zone turnovers, the kind they made in spades the other night against the Canucks. That puts added pressure on Hellebuyck, who faced more shots and high-danger chances than any NHL goalie this year.
“Their D will be up the ice all night long. They’re very very active on the rush, very active on pinching. You’re gonna be breaking out with someone breathing down your neck very hard, so you better hope they’re wearing a mask,” said Woodcroft.
Besides Hellebuyck and Tkachuk, one other key player in this series might be Jets forward Nikolaj Ehlers, who is looking to break out in a big way. He has yet to score in 21 playoff games, but seems quicker and more determined than ever these days. Maurice told me earlier this week he’s expecting big things from the flashy Dane, and Woodcroft agrees this could be his coming out party.
“It does take players a while to figure out how to play in the playoffs. It’s a totally different animal,” he said. “I think Nikky is ready to take that corner, and he’s going to take that corner fast. His skill set is elite, his speed is elite, and now he’s a man, he’s not 19 or 20 years old any more. He’s a pure talent and ready to explode.”
The short series will add urgency to each shift, each period and each game, and who can make the better adjustments on the fly is another development to keep an eye on. Woodcroft believes Winnipeg has the advantage there.
“That’s where Paul is the master. His ability to process the game at the highest speed, it’s almost like a savant, where you can see music,” he said.
It won’t surprise you to hear that Woodcroft believes Winnipeg will skate away with the series. And after a 45-minute chat on Friday, I’m more confident than ever with my pick.
Jets beat the Flames in four games.
Mike McIntyre grew up wanting to be a professional wrestler. But when that dream fizzled, he put all his brawn into becoming a professional writer.
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