EDMONTON — You won’t be surprised to hear the Calgary Flames like their chances against the Winnipeg Jets. But your eyebrows might rise just a bit at how blunt forward Mikael Backlund was on Thursday in assessing how the best-of-five qualifying series may play out.
Dare we say this is venturing into bulletin board territory?
“If we play our best, I think we’re the better team,” Backlund matter-of-factly told reporters during a Zoom conference call in Edmonton. “I think we have a really good chance to move on if we do our job and play the way we can.”
OK, so it’s not exactly “those guys are frauds and we’re going to leave them shaking in their skates,” but it may just add a little fuel to the fire ahead of the all-Canadian playoff matchup which begins Saturday night.
Hey, anything to get the competitive juices flowing is welcome in our books.
Andrew Mangiapane, who skates on the second line with Backlund, took in Wednesday night’s exhibition game at Rogers Place between Winnipeg and Vancouver. He was asked if he noticed the Jets seemed to struggle at times early in the game with a heavy Canucks forecheck, which is Mangiapane’s bread-and-butter.
“Yeah, but it’s an exhibition game. But I was kind of watching their systems and how they handle the forecheck. We’ve got to work out strengths,” he said.
Both players admit they also took notice of the stellar work of Jets goalie Connor Hellebuyck, who is likely the biggest obstacle standing in their way of advancing. And that’s where the third member of their line, Matthew Tkachuk, could become a factor. Tkachuk has a bit of a well-earned reputation as a shift disturber who loves to get in the grill of goaltenders. He also seems to fall in the crease a lot. Accidentally on purpose.
“I’m sure it frustrates goalies, having him around the net and in their face. So if he can do it a little bit and get a little frustration in Hellebuyck’s mind, it will definitely help us for sure,” said Backlund, while Mangiapane chuckled beside him on the podium.
“It will be a big key for us to make it harder in their own zone, pressure them all over the ice, especially on the forecheck, create turnovers and chances. We’ve got to capitalize, find ways to score on one of the best goalies in the league.”
Flames coach Geoff Ward was much more effusive of his praise for Winnipeg, especially after watching them handle Vancouver 4-1 in the playoff tune-up.
“They’re a real good team, first and foremost. We’re talking about a team that a couple years ago was in the Western Conference final. They have experience with their players in terms of what it’s like to go on a long playoff run, they understand exactly what this time of year offers and how you have to be prepared,” he said.
“They’re well coached, they’re very well detailed and we don’t see any weaknesses in their game whatsoever. Watching their game (Wednesday) just re-affirms that. We understand that we have a tough test, but at the same point in time we’re looking forward to dropping the puck and seeing what unfolds.”
Calgary lost a hard-hitting exhibition game on Tuesday against arch-rival Edmonton by a 4-1 count, although Ward thought his troops deserved better than the final score.
“We felt like we did an awful lot of good things. Sometimes it’s not what you make, it’s what you leave. We had an awful lot of good looks. But at the same point in time, we left them some easy goals,” said Ward.
“We’ve really got to understand we have to be playing from the defensive side of the puck. A few missed assignments here and there, not getting a few pucks deep and pucks are in your net. We have to be cognizant of that. That was a real real important lesson for us to take out of the exhibition game.”
There’s still an aura of mystery surrounding the Flames in terms of their starting goaltender. David Rittich and Cam Talbot split the game against the Oilers and were each beaten twice.
“We certainly have something formulating in the back of our minds but I kind of like listening to you guys throw it around a little bit. We’ll let that sort of happen for the next couple days,” said Ward.
“But yeah, we’re close to naming a guy. But right now we’re not going to do it. Still evaluating the process, but we’re close.”
Calgary is looking for redemption after a speedy first-round playoff exit last year, something Ward and his players made repeated reference to on Thursday.
“It’s a different sort of feel this year than it was last year. There’s a businesslike focus among our group. There’s a determination there. It looks like they’re in the right place to get going for a playoff series,” said Ward.
“It’s not always what you eat, it’s how you chew it. I think if our guys chew on what’s happened in the past in the right way, it will help us with what we face now.”
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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