Terry Shilton has beaten me to the punch in being the first to preview the Flames/Blackhawks series, but I'll still try my best to steal his readership. The collapse finally was completed over the weekend, as the Flames officially lost the Northwest Division and now face their most dreaded playoff opponent – the Blackhawks – without home ice advantage. Suffice to say, you can add another person to what looks like a long list of people writing off the Flames for this series. You know how it goes, I'd love to be wrong, etc, etc.
The first thing going against the Flames is the fact that the Blackhawks swept them in the regular season, with only one game – a 3-2 overtime loss at the 'Dome in December – being decided by less than 3 goals. It seemed the Flames had trouble all year coping with the speed advantage of the Hawks. Nikolai Khabibulin also continued his lifetime dominance over the Flames. At the start of February, when the Flames and Hawks played their final regular season game (5-2 triumph for Chicago at the 'Dome) I considered Chicago my most-feared matchup, but didn't think it could happen since the Hawks were looking like they'd be in the no. 4 or 5 slot and the Flames had a then-insurmountable lead on the no. 3 position. Now, the nightmare has happened. It would be bad enough if the Flames had not incurred a horrific string of injuries in their failed scramble to try and regain the division. It seems that Robyn Regehr will be out for the equivalent of at least one playoff round. This is the most crucial injury, even without the others it would be absolutely devastating. (In the Flames' most embarrassing loss to Chicago – a 6-1 pounding in November – Regehr was a PLUS ONE.) Also in the sick bay is Dion Phaneuf (day to day; though unfortunately he should still have to play extra minutes). Curtis Glencross is also day to day. The only positive news on this front is that with the salary cap now a nonfactor, the Flames can ice a full roster. Also, it has been reported that Cory Sarich and Rene Bourque will return. Bourque is especially crucial. Ever since his injury in late February, the Flames' chemistry has suffered severely (his presence as the second line RW made Mike Keenan settle on set lines.) He is invaluable on the defensive side of things and was on pace for 30 goals and 30 assists. He also tied for the lead in points in the season series with 3 points (with Todd Bertuzzi).
Perhaps the most crucial matchup is Nikolai Khabibulin against Miikka Kiprusoff. Khabibulin owns the Flames historically and already won one playoff series against them. Khabibulin essentially split Chicago's starts with Cristobal Huet, whereas Miikka Kiprusoff started almost all games and the subject of him potentially burning out was the most frequent debate about the Flames all season. Kipper burned out in the playoffs last year, and his spotty play the final two months can't give anyone confidence.
The dreaded “c” word has been envoked in a front-page Herald sports article already regarding Olli Jokinen. No, not cancer, the other dreaded “c” word – chemistry. It's no secret that the once-highly touted top line of the Flames has evaporated. If Olli Jokinen can't turn it around this playoffs, all the nasty accusations about him will be proven true (though I still won't call him a cancer until it's proven). Mike Cammalleri also has something to prove. His first ever playoffs might be something that proves a factor in how well he cashes in as an unrestricted free agent. (Oh who am I kidding.) Jarome Iginla has always been at his best in the playoffs with the Flames, but this year he's going into the playoffs coming off what can be considered his worst season in seven years. It goes without saying that the top line has to somehow come together.
Ultimately, I am a realist, and I just have to say that the negatives for the Flames (no Robyn Regehr, injured Dion Phaneuf, possibly no Curtis Glencross, no powerplay, a possibly burned out goaltender, no home ice, and obviously, a level of play the past month and a half that couldn't get them close to the playoffs over a full season) vastly outweigh the positives (finally the return of the full second line, a clean slate, finally a full roster, no Mark Lee doing play-by-play – oh wait I guess that last one is more of a positive for me than the team.) I can't really give myself false hope. Blackhawks in 5, because I have a hard time believing that even Calgary could lose 8 consecutive times, in the regular season and playoffs, to the same team. Actually maybe I have a certain obligation to be more optimistic as a Flames fan. Hawks in 6. I'd love to be wrong. Just like last season versus San Jose, if the Flames start this series with a split, I think they could have a chance. That is as optimistic as I can get. Actually, I feel terrible officially predicting my own team to lose like that. There are certain obligations as a fan I must fulfill – even though I know nothing I do or say will have any bearing on the result – and one of those is to, when writing a blog like this, to at least say HOW the Flames can win such a series. Here it is: I think the Flames can win, and should win in seven games, if all the following things happen: if the Regehr-less defense, and/or Miikka Kiprusoff, can keep the Hawks' high flying offense reasonably under control; if the top line – at least two of three players – comes through; if the finally fully healthy second line can be as good as they were before Rene Bourque's injury; if the powerplay isn't a significant factor somehow; and if the Flames can put the last two and a half months behind them. I think these can happen, I really do. Flames in seven. There. Homer obligation fulfilled. And just to show you I mean business, I'll change one of my predictions – I think the Flyers will win now.
(The rest of my playoff predictions.
East: Bruins in 7 – people are writing off the Habs, and they are probably right, but I have a hard time seeing a Bruins-Habs series being a complete blowout
Washington in 5 – maybe the only series I'm really confident about
Canes in 7 – on the fence about this one. I really like Carolina as a sleeper.
Flyers in 7 – have absolutely no clue what will happen here. Uh oh Doug Maclean just picked the Pens on Calgary radio, maybe I'll rethink the Pens
West: Sharks in 7 – I just can't see San Jose losing in the first round.
Wings in 6 – Another series I'm not sure about, IMO it could easily be an upset.
Canucks in 6 – St. Louis will be good very soon but I don't think they're ready yet.)
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Written by Alex Hamilton