The first sweep of the 2017 Stanley Cup Playoffs is in the books. And, depending what happens in Nashville on Thursday, it might be the only four-game series we see in the first round.
Unfortunately for fans in Calgary, the Flames were on the wrong end of this one. And that’s a bitter way to end a fairly successful season. Two years ago, the club from Alberta not only shocked a lot of people by qualifying for the playoffs — they went ahead and advanced to the second round, too. But the way they got to that point wasn’t seen as all that sustainable.
This time around, Calgary’s playoff push didn’t seem so far ahead of schedule. And it’s a little more realistic to think their 94 regular season points could be a stepping stone to a bright future, rather than an outlier springing from a year where everything went right. Their young stars are blossoming, Mikael Backlund just delivered a career-best effort, Dougie Hamilton is looking like a centerpiece of the blue line after two years with the team and they’ve worked some vets into the mix as well.
The main question now, yet again, is what happens between the pipes. And the Anaheim Ducks reminded everybody of that during this series. Both Brian Elliott and backup Chad Johnson are unrestricted free agents, and the former had an up and down year. After coming over in a trade from St. Louis last summer, he started slowly with the Flames — even losing his No. 1 gig to Johnson for awhile. He hit his stride in the second half, but that didn’t carry over into this series.
To be fair, nobody is pinning this sweep solely on Elliott. But he hardly resembled the guy who ended the Blackhawks’ season with a remarkable solo effort when he was with the Blues just 12 months ago. His 0.880 save percentage and 3.88 goals against average each rank 16th out of the 16 starting goalies in these playoffs, and he was yanked after facing just three shots in the deciding game on Wednesday night.
Couple that with the likelihood that there could be a few decent starting goalies available this summer, whether via trade or free agency (Marc-Andre Fleury and Ben Bishop, to name a few), and Elliott’s future in Calgary is far from a done deal.
Beyond that, there’s the somewhat surprising wrinkle that general manager Brad Treliving doesn’t have a new contract yet, despite playing a major role in assembling a pretty promising young roster.
On the other end of the ice, Anaheim is peaking at just the right time. Randy Carlyle’s group made sure to finish off the regular season strong, and they’ve parlayed that into a nice start in the playoffs. Since a 5-2 victory over Washington on March 12, the Ducks are 15-0-3 — wrapping up another division title and becoming the first team in these playoffs to reach the second round in the process.
In many ways, this series resembled the first round sweep Anaheim pulled off against Winnipeg in 2015. Every game was hard fought and close — to the point where every outcome was still very much up in the air in the waning seconds of the third period. But the Ducks found a way to persevere and grind out a win every single time.
Some of that is experience, and it’s a major reason why Anaheim was viewed as the fairly heavy favorite coming into this matchup. But it’s worth noting that — while the Ducks were the Pacific winners — they had only one more regular season victory than Calgary did. They just know how to win games in the playoffs.
They also know how to beat the Flames, going 8-1 against Glen Gulutzan’s squad over their nine total meetings this year. And that’s a puzzle Calgary will obviously need to solve, moving forward. Because any path they plan on taking through the playoffs in the future will likely feature more battles with their division rivals from Orange County.
For Anaheim, making quick work of the Flames means they get to sit back and rest up while San Jose and Edmonton beat each other up. Many observers viewed the Ducks as a quality contender in that second tier of playoff teams behind Chicago in the West. But much has changed. The Hawks aren’t completely finished just yet, but they’re on the ropes against an upstart Nashville club.
And, quite frankly, Anaheim just looks flat out dangerous.
John Gibson performed well in this series, reasserting himself as the clear top option in net. And he just so happens to have a pretty strong backup behind him in Jonathan Bernier, should things break down for whatever reason. Meanwhile, a collection of defenders beaten up by injury still managed to get the job done in front of him, showing impressive depth along the way.
Up front, Ryan Getzlaf has turned his game up a notch or two, while Corey Perry is making things happen after a relatively sub-par regular season. Trade deadline acquisition Patrick Eaves is still capitalizing on his career year, and Ryan Kesler was just named a finalist for the Selke.
In other words, the vets are making their presence felt and stepping up at the right time. But considerable contributions from younger players like Jakob Silfverberg (26 years old), Rickard Rakell (23), Nick Ritchie (21) and Shea Theodore (21) have given the Ducks another wave of weapons that opponents now have to account for too. And that makes this a dangerous bunch — particularly in a conference that looks pretty wide open right now.