By Donna Spencer, The Canadian Press
CALGARY — Both the Calgary Flames and Winnipeg Jets had drama this season even before the NHL’s COVID-19 interruption.
Calgary and Winnipeg open their best-of-five series Saturday in Edmonton in the lone matchup of Canadian teams in the qualifying round.
The victor meets the Western Conference’s top seed that will emerge from a round robin of the defending Stanley Cup champion St. Louis Blues, Colorado Avalanche, Dallas Stars and Vegas Golden Knights.
From a sudden early-season coaching change in Calgary to the season-long Dustin Byfuglien saga in Winnipeg, neither team was a stranger to turbulence when the NHL halted the season March 12 because of the pandemic.
Their only previous game this season was played in falling snow outdoors Oct. 26 in Regina, where Winnipeg won the Heritage Classic 2-1 in overtime.
“There probably isn’t another team in the NHL, that based on last season, we know less about,” Jets head coach Paul Maurice said early in training camp.
“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.”
Geoff Ward makes his NHL post-season debut as a head coach in Edmonton. He was abruptly promoted from associate to interim head coach in November after Bill Peters resigned amid allegations of misconduct, including directing racial slurs at former NHL player Akim Aliu when Peters was an AHL coach.
A .500 team then, the Flames rallied from the controversy to go 24-15-3 with Ward.
“We lived through something last year that none of us really want to live through again,” Ward said. “We talked about that in terms of springboarding ourselves into becoming a more battle-tested group and becoming a harder group.”
A first-round exit from the 2019 playoffs at the hands of the Avalanche still stings in Calgary because the Flames had posted 50 wins to top the conference. The top line of Sean Monahan, Johnny Gaudreau and Elias Lindholm were limited to a combined five points in five games.
The trio has playoff redemption on their minds. They recovered their scoring touch in the back half of this abbreviated season, and their 69 goals accounted for almost a third of Calgary’s 210.
So the Flames boast firepower in their top two lines, as well as depth on defence despite the absence of top-four defenceman Travis Hamonic. He opted out citing concerns about the virus’s risk to his infant daughter, who had a respiratory illness this year.
Calgary’s lack of a clear No. 1 goalie is in stark contrast to Vezina Trophy nominee Connor Hellebuyck in Winnipeg’s net.
Jets forwards Mark Scheifele, Kyle Connor, Blake Wheeler and Patrik Laine are as dangerous as the Flames’ top four. The Jets outscored opponents 15-5 over their last four games back in March.
Calgary’s current roster ranks last in combined previous NHL post-season experience (323 games), compared to Winnipeg in 16th (515). But a pair of longtime Jets who contributed to Winnipeg’s Western final appearance two years ago didn’t return for this post-season.
Bryan Little, the longest-serving Jet, wasn’t on the roster for July’s training camp because of a season-ending ear injury sustained in November.
All-star defenceman Byfuglien and the team agreed to terminate his contract in April. The burly veteran didn’t report to September’s training camp.
KEY MATCHUP — Hellebuyck vs. Calgary shooters Monahan, Gaudreau, Lindholm, Matthew Tkachuk and Mikael Backlund.
THE BIG QUESTION — Can the Jets, particularly Hellebuyck, handle the abrasive Tkachuk who leads the Flames in both points and in annoying opposing players?
PLAYOFF HISTORY — Calgary’s lone Stanley Cup victory was in 1989. The Flames reached the 2004 Cup final, but have made it past the first round just once in the last 14 years. Since the Jets returned to Winnipeg in 2011, they’ve twice been ousted in the first round and reached the 2018 conference final. Winnipeg lost in six games to the eventual Stanley Cup champion Blues last year.
COACHES’ PLAYOFF HISTORY — Winnipeg holds the clear edge with Maurice going 36-44 in 80 games, including conference final appearances with Carolina in 2002 and the Jets two years ago. Ward is an NHL head coach for the first time. He won a Stanley Cup as a Boston Bruins assistant in 2011.
REGULAR-SEASON RECORDS — Calgary ranked eighth in the Western Conference at 36-27-7 one point above ninth-seeded Winnipeg at 38-27-6.
SEASON SERIES — The 2019-20 season doesn’t include a “normal” game between the Flames and Jets. Little scored the OT winner in the outdoor Heritage Classic in Regina. The day the NHL suspended the season, the Jets were in Calgary preparing for a March 14 game at the Saddledome.