You can’t pick your playoff opponent, Calgary Flames’ defenceman Mark Giordano was saying Monday, but what would happen, even if you could?
With the Pacific Division standings such a closely contested jumble right until the end of the NHL regular season, the Flames would almost certainly have chosen anyone but the Anaheim Ducks to play in the opening playoff round. Anaheim is home to Disneyland, otherwise known as the Happiest Place on Earth. For Calgary, it has been the opposite. It has been Death Valley.
The Flames have lost their past 25 regular-season games in Anaheim, an NHL record. Two years ago, in their past playoff appearance, the Flames lost to the Ducks in five relatively easy games.
Calgary matched up reasonably well against a lot of Western Conference opponents, and even might have preferred to face the No. 1 team statistically, the Chicago Blackhawks.
Anaheim always poses problems – and this year’s series is further underscored by the bad blood that occurred in the final meeting of the season when a knee-on-knee collision between Giordano and Anaheim’s top defenceman, Cam Fowler, put Fowler on the shelf for between two and six weeks.
Fowler plays more minutes a night than any Duck player (24 minutes 50 seconds) and is arguably their second most important player after team captain Ryan Getzlaf.
Fowler will almost certainly miss the entire first round and his absence will represent a competitive edge to the Flames, who played without Giordano, their best defencemen, in the series two years ago because he was injured. It doesn’t completely close the gap between the teams, but it narrows it a little.
Predictably, Ducks general manager Bob Murray was livid that Giordano didn’t receive a suspension and was critical of the way the Calgary captain plays – which is how you’d expect the GM of a team smack in the midst of its championship window to respond. They always rally in support of their own player. Murray, a likeable straight shooter, probably even meant it.
But his counterpart in Calgary, Brad Treliving, replied in kind, labelling Murray’s comments about Giordano “asinine” and without merit.
“Mark Giordano is a true pro,” Treliving said, “and we’re going to go into the series not worried about what’s happened before. There’s a method to the madness there – to put something in the officials’ heads going into the series.”
So the war of words is already under way, even before the teams hit the ice for the series opener Thursday in Anaheim.
Because of who he is and how he plays, Giordano will be a focal point. He hasn’t played an NHL playoff series since his first full season, 2006-07, absent for the Flames’ 2015 two-round postseason cameo series because of a bicep tear. After delivering the hit on Fowler, Giordano was jumped by the Ducks’ Josh Manson, the predictable coming-to-the-defence-of-a-teammate ethic that still governs NHL player conduct. Having already answered the bell once, Giordano believes the matter has been resolved and he will not face extra attention from any Duck player, seeking another pound of flesh.
“If you play a lot against other teams’ top lines, you’re going to get extra attention, whether you like it or not,” Giordano said. “That game happened, but it’s done with. It’s a playoff series and emotions are going to be high, but as a team and an individual, you can’t let it affect your game.”
The matchup represents an interesting psychological puzzle because many of the Flames players, including starting goaltender Brian Elliott and head coach Glen Gulutzan, are comparative newcomers and thus really shouldn’t have to answer for more than a decade of failure in Anaheim.
For their part, the Ducks have a few of their own demons to exorcise, after they were upset in the opening round last year by a wild-card team, the Nashville Predators. The Ducks have the unhappy distinction of having lost three consecutive Game 7s on home ice – to Nashville last year; to Chicago in the third round two years ago; and to Detroit in the second round the year before that.
So the Ducks need to get their playoffs off on the right foot, and though they’d never acknowledge it publicly, getting Calgary to open is probably as good as it gets for them, in what they anticipate will be a long playoff run.
Giordano, incidentally, knew exactly how many more regular-season wins separated Anaheim and Calgary this season – one. In 61/2 months of hockey, that’s a narrow gap.
“Those are the sorts of things you want to bring up to the guys,” Giordano said. “Not a lot separates most teams in the West. In our division, it was pretty tight. That’s how close the league is and that’s why it’s such a battle to get in.
“And once you get in,” Giordano concluded hopefully, “everyone has a shot.”Report Typo/Error