Manitoba·NHL PLAYOFF PREVIEW

Winnipeg vs. Calgary: The Flames are favoured by oddsmakers and analytics nerds alike

Anything can happen in best-of-five series. That's good news for the Winnipeg Jets, who are underdogs heading into a qualifying-round series against the favoured Calgary Flames.

Connor Hellebuyck, however, gives the Jets a chance in a best-of-five series where anything can happen

Flames forward Johnny Gaudreau tangles with Winnipeg goalie Connor Hellebuyck in Regina last October, the last time the two teams faced each other. (Liam Richards/The Canadian Press)

The last time a team called the Winnipeg Jets played in a best-of-five playoff series, they were swept by the Calgary Flames.

It was April 1986. The Chernobyl nuclear reactor in Ukraine was two weeks away from exploding when the Winnipeg Jets season imploded in three short games.

The following year, the National Hockey League did away with the best-of-five format in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs, ostensibly to reduce the potential for upsets at the start of the post-season.

True enough, anything can happen in a best-of-five series — a format that has returned 34 seasons later as a tag-on qualifying round that allows 24 NHL teams to compete in a pandemic-impeded post-season.

It's fitting the Jets are again playing the Flames in what may seem like a crapshoot, given how evenly matched the teams appeared to be at the end of the truncated regular season — and how unfamiliar they are with each other now.

"There probably isn't another team in the NHL that, based on last season, we know less about," Jets head coach Paul Maurice told reporters earlier this month.

"We had one game against them, so that would almost make them like an Eastern Conference opponent, and it was an outdoor game and they had a different coach."

The best-of-five series between Winnipeg and Calgary begins Saturday night in Edmonton at 9:30 p.m. CT.

Here's how the two teams match up.

Ancient history 

The current Winnipeg Jets franchise has never played Calgary in the post-season before. The original Winnipeg Jets, however, played the Flames three playoff seasons in a row during the 1980s, beating Calgary twice and losing once in an opening-round series.

In 1985, the most offensively gifted team in the history of the original Jets — Winnipeg was endowed with six 30-goal scorers that season — dispatched Calgary in four games. Unfortunately, the Jets lost leading scorer and team MVP Dale Hawerchuk to a vicious cross-check during the best-of-five series and could not compete against the Edmonton Oilers in the next round.

In 1986, a much improved Calgary team swept a far weaker Jets squad in the final three-game opening series of the original Jets era. The tables turned again in 1987, when Winnipeg required six games in a seven-game series to knock off the Flames.

What this means now: Absolutely nothing.

Recent history

Winnipeg and Calgary only met once during the abbreviated 2019-20 NHL season — and that was way back on Oct. 26 in Regina, during an outdoor heritage classic. The Jets won that game 2-1 in overtime.

Both teams experienced somewhat disappointing seasons after that, before finishing with similar records. Each team ended up nine games above .500 when the shutdown took place.

The Jets wound up with one more point in the standings, but the Flames took the edge in points percentage due to playing fewer games. This is why Calgary has the virtual home-ice advantage in Edmonton.

Winnipeg Jets captain Blake Wheeler battles in front of Vancouver Canucks goalie Jacob Markstrom during a Wednesday exhibition game won by the Jets. (Jeff Vinnick/Getty Images)

Analytically, however, the Flames were a far better regular-season team. According to moneypuck.com, the Flames posted an expected-goals differential of .06 during the regular season, which means Calgary took a few more quality shots on its opponents than it faced. 

Winnipeg, meanwhile, posted a negative 0.63 expected-goals differential, by far the worst in the league. The Jets gave up way more quality chances than they had versus opponents this past season, and still won a bunch of games solely because Vezina Trophy-nominated goalie Connor Hellebuyck stopped all sorts of shots a lesser talent could not have kept out of the net.

What this means now: As Maurice suggested, the outdoor game in October is irrelevant. The regular-season records don't matter much, either, given the long break between the middle of March and the beginning of August. But the analytics are important, as they suggest Winnipeg was much worse than its record, while Calgary underperformed during the regular season.

The advantage goes to Calgary.

Offence

The Winnipeg Jets are blessed with multiple scoring threats in the form of centre Mark Scheifele and wingers Kyle Connor, Blake Wheeler, Patrik Laine and Nikolaj Ehlers. This top-six group, filled out late in the season with trade-deadline acquisition Cody Eakin, is skilled enough to capitalize on relatively few great chances.

That allowed the team as a whole to experience success with what amounted to hockey's version of a rope-a-dope strategy: they surrendered more great chances than they earned but still managed to win a bunch of games.

Calgary's most dangerous offensive weapon is super-pest Matthew Tkachuk. The top line of Sean Monahan, Johnny Gaudreau and Elias Lindholm is capable of filling the net, but didn't do that very often during a five-game series loss last spring to the Colorado Avalanche.

Calgary's forwards, however, are less likely to get hemmed into their own zone.

What this means: Winnipeg is a more gifted offensive team but Calgary's forwards are less of a liability. You can call this one a wash.

Defence

Calgary did a good job all season protecting its own zone, even when Mark Giordano was out with an injury. He's now healthy, though the boost provided by his return is tempered by the absence of Travis Hamonic, one of only a handful of NHL players who chose to opt out of the playoffs.

Winnipeg's defence this season was awful, and not just in comparison. Winnipeg's brutal expected-goals deficit is not just a statistical quirk: the Jets were out-chanced early and often. The late addition of Dylan DeMelo seemed to improve the back end, however.

What this means: Calgary retains the advantage, but the gap may not be as big as it once was.

Goaltending

This may not go over well with superfans, but the outstanding play of Hellebuyck is the only reason the Jets are in the playoffs. Without his ability to make difficult saves, the Jets wouldn't be in Edmonton. You don't get outchanced all the time and win without an elite goalie.

David Rittich and Cam Talbot are capable netminders for Calgary, but they are not difference-makers.

What this means: Winnipeg has a huge advantage in goal. 

Edmonton's Connor McDavid scores on Calgary goalie Cam Talbot during a Tuesday exhibition game won by the Oilers. (Jason Franson/The Canadian Press)

Experience

During the five seasons prior to the current pandemic-interrupted campaign, both the Jets and Flames made the playoffs three times.

The Jets got knocked out in the first round by the Anaheim Ducks in 2015 and St. Louis Blues in 2019. In 2018, the Jets made it all the way to the conference finals.

The Flames also got turfed in the first round twice — in 2017 by the Ducks and 2019 by Colorado. In 2015, the Flames made the second round, but only a few core members of that team remain with the club.

Paul Maurice coached the Jets for all of those playoff games and remains with the team. Calgary's Geoff Ward, who replaced Bill Peters late in 2019, has never coached an NHL playoff game.

What this means: A Winnipeg advantage, at least on paper.

The odds

Las Vegas oddsmakers favour Calgary over Winnipeg, with the most likely outcome pegged as a Flames victory in five games. They're giving Calgary the nod in what's expected to be a close series.

The analytics crowd also favours the Flames, albeit with more vigor.

Moneypuck.com, which was bang-on with its predictions of a successful Jets season in 2018 and a St. Louis Stanley Cup victory last year, gives the Jets a mere 39.7 per cent chance of making it out of the qualifying round. Only the Vancouver Canucks have worse odds of making it past their first opponent.

That said, anything can happen in a five-game series, and especially during this unusual post-season, when all 24 playoff-bound NHL teams are equally well-rested and rusty.

Advantage: Calgary is the clear favourite to win.

About the Author

Bartley Kives

Reporter, CBC Manitoba

Reporter Bartley Kives joined CBC Manitoba in 2016. Prior to that, he spent three years at the Winnipeg Sun and 18 at the Winnipeg Free Press, writing about politics, music, food and outdoor recreation. He's the author of the Canadian bestseller A Daytripper's Guide to Manitoba: Exploring Canada's Undiscovered Province and co-author of both Stuck in the Middle: Dissenting Views of Winnipeg and Stuck In The Middle 2: Defining Views of Manitoba. His work has also appeared in publications such as the Guardian and Explore magazine.

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