Darryl Sutter has done the math. But the Calgary Flames are still trying to find the right formula for success against the Edmonton Oilers.
If their chemistry is off in the 1-1 second-round series, it’s easy to understand why.
The Flames are missing their best defensive defenceman in Chris Tanev, who has been a spectator since Game 6 in the first-round series against the Dallas Stars. Michael Stone has done an admirable job filling in, but there’s no replacing a warrior like Tanev at playoff time. The Flames won the first shootout 9-6 but came up short in Game 2 with a 5-3 loss.
Goaltender Jacob Markstrom has been imbalanced against the Oilers all season long. He’s 3-3 and his stats are pedestrian at best against the provincial rival in 2021-22. Against the rest of the league, Markstrom’s numbers are elite.
But one of the biggest puzzles to solve revolves around the best player on the ice in both games so far. And that’s where Sutter’s math enters the picture.
The player is Connor McDavid, of course. And number, 22.5, is how many minutes the Calgary Flames have played without 10 skaters on the ice at the same time. What that translates into more elbow room for McDavid for more than a full period of hockey.
“Who does it help the very most in the NHL; which player? Not even close,” Sutter said of the frequent periods of five-on-four or four-on-four hockey (not including Flames powerplays).
“It’s like a shinny game then. Like when we were kids and there’s one guy out there that had the puck all the time because he was so big and there was so much room out there. Same deal.”
Sutter is talking about McDavid, of course. But there’s also the ‘other’ guy who happened to be the only NHL player to hit 50 goals and 50 assists this season – Leon Draisaitl.
“That’s definitely playing in favour of two or three players on their team.”
Evidence has shown, certainly in this series alone, that there’s no one way to slow down McDavid. Nikita Zadorov, a monster of a defenceman, tried to take the body inside the Flames zone in Game 2 but the 6-foot-6 blueliner basically bounced off McDavid and watched from the ice as the Oilers captain executed a perfect give-and-go play with Duncan Keith and walked around Markstrom to score an important goal in the first period.
McDavid now has 20 points in nine playoff games this year. He averaged two points per game against the Los Angeles Kings in the first round. Against the Flames, he has six points (two goals, four assists) in the first two games.
Always a threat, McDavid has seemed to step up his already incredible effort level at times when his team needs him the most.
“I think that type of effort and leadership is contagious, and I think it resonates with our players,” Oilers head coach Jay Woodcroft said on Saturday.
“He’s a pretty businesslike person. (McDavid) approaches the game with a level of seriousness. And that goes to his training, his nutrition his rest. Every aspect of Connor in terms of the professional hockey player is business oriented. He’s driven to be the best in the world; he’s driven to find marginal gains on a day-by-day basis.”
And he’s put the Oilers in the driver’s seat in this series.
The Calgary Flames are far from done. They’re square in the series and have yet to play their best game consistently. Johnny Gaudreau took a huge step in his growth as a playoff performer last round, and Matthew Tkachuk showed up at crunch time in Game 1. However, they will need that McDavid-like elevation to escape Rogers Place with at least a split to re-take home-ice advantage.
“Plain and simple, we need to play better,” said Flames defenceman Rasmus Andersson.
Improving that would help Markstrom, who also needs to elevate his .868 save percentage against the Oilers this season.
“A big hockey game,” Markstrom said Saturday. “It’s up to us to be ready.”