(SportsNetwork.com) - The Vancouver Canucks experienced a quicker-than- expected turnaround under first-year head coach Willie Desjardins.
The Canucks return to the postseason for the sixth time in seven years, a run that includes a Stanley Cup Finals loss to the Boston Bruins in 2011. That was part of a string of five straight playoff appearances that ended last spring under one-and-done coach John Tortorella and the club hasn't made it out of the first round since that Finals appearance.
Desjardins was brought in to replace him after serving two seasons as head coach of the Texas Stars of the American Hockey League, winning a Calder Cup championship in 2014. So hey, at least he knows how to win it all.
Desjardins' instincts as a head coach will be tested right away. Does he go with No. 1 netminder Ryan Miller despite the 34-year-old having been sidelined since Feb. 22 with a knee injury before returning for Vancouver's regular- season finale, or start backup Eddie Lack, who did a decent job in filling in for Miller?
Miller was brought in as a free agent this past offseason to lead the Canucks into the playoffs and went 29-15-1 with a 2.53 goals against average and .911 save percentage in 45 games, but was shelled for five goals on 28 shots in a win over Edmonton on April 11.
Lack allowed two goals or fewer 12 times after Miller's injury, but also yielded more than three on six occasions.
While there is some concern Miller could be rusty, a slow start by Lack could put the Canucks in a hole they can't get out of.
That makes the resurgence of 34-year-old brothers Henrik and Daniel Sedin big. The latter led the club with 76 points, three more than Henrik, after the duo combined for just 97 points in the lost season under Tortorella.
The Sedin twins could be paired with either Radim Vrbata, who led Vancouver with 31 goals, or another veteran in 18-goal scorer Alexandre Burrows.
Outside of the Sedins, the Canucks don't really have another offensive superstar, so depth is their strength. Only Vrbata and Daniel Sedin reached the 20-goal mark, but in all Vancouver saw 12 skaters reach at least 10.
Rookies Bo Horvat and Linden Vey combined for 25 goals and 49 points, while Nick Bonino, Shawn Matthias and Jannik Hansen had solid seasons.
The Vancouver blue line dealt with injury for most of the season, with only Alexander Edler, Luca Sbisa and Christopher Tanev reaching 70 games played, but 26-year-old Yannick Weber came out of nowhere to net 11 goals with 21 points. He came into the season having scored just 11 goals with 42 points 164 games.
Edler was a plus-13 while leading Vancouver with 23 minutes, 58 seconds of ice time, while Kevin Bieksa and Dan Hamhuis round out a defense that also lacks a true star.
REGULAR SEASON RECORD: 45-30-7 (3rd place, Pacific)
2014 PLAYOFFS: Did not qualify
Like the Canucks, the Calgary Flames weren't really expected to be contenders this season and did not make the playoffs last season.
Like the Canucks, the Flames are looking to get past the opening round for the first time in a while.
Calgary qualified for the playoffs for the first time since 2009, a season that marked a fourth straight first-round exit for the franchise. The Flames haven't advanced in the postseason since reaching the Stanley Cup Finals in 2004, when it lost to the Tampa Bay Lightning.
What makes the Flames' third-place finish in the Pacific Division even more impressive was they did so despite losing captain and star defenseman Mark Giordano in late February. Giordano was well on his way to a Norris Trophy nomination with 48 points through 61 games.
A lot of credit goes to head coach Bob Hartley, who never allowed his club to quit. Calgary tied Tampa Bay for the most third-period goals scored with 99, added another league high-tying nine overtime tallies and yielded just 68 third-period scores.
Hartley's blue line perhaps defined the club's attitude the most, especially after losing Giordano. Dennis Wideman, T.J. Brodie and Kris Russell all ended the season logging about 24 minutes per game, with Wideman potting 15 goals, Brodie 11 and Russell setting an NHL record with 283 blocked shots.
Deryk Engelland also figures to log top-4 minutes in the playoffs.
Offensively, the emergence of rookie Johnny Gaudreau and continued progression by Sean Monahan were a big reason the Flames took a giant step forward. That young pair teamed with veteran Jiri Hudler to give Calgary a dangerous top line.
Hudler and Monahan led the club with 31 goals each and Hudler added a Flames- high 45 assists. Gaudreau, meanwhile, established himself as a serious Calder Trophy candidate after leading all rookies with 40 assists and tying Ottawa's Mark Stone for the first-year lead of 64 points.
After that top line, the Flames will be counting on a mix of experience and youth. Lance Bouma, 25, set a career high with 16 goals and 34 points, 30- year-old David Jones bounced back with 14 goals and 30 points, while Mason Raymond posted 12 goals in 57 games.
Rookies Josh Jooris (12 goals) and Markus Granlund (8 goals) will look to provide a spark and join Mikael Backlund, Jones and Bouma on lines that try to play solid two-way hockey.
One thing to watch is if Hartley decides to use Sam Bennett, the No. 4 pick of the 2014 draft. Bennett was in line to receive at least a look on Calgary's roster at the start of the season, but ended up undergoing shoulder surgery that shelved him until late February.
Bennett finally made his NHL debut on April 11 in Calgary's regular-season finale, notching an assist.
Hartley at times this season leaned on Jonas Hiller and Karri Ramo for stretches, but Hiller figures to be the No. 1 netminder for the postseason after Ramo recently suffered a lower-body injury.
The 33-year-old Hiller went 26-19-4 with a 2.36 GAA and .918 save percentage over 52 games in his first season with the Flames and does have playoff experience from his time with the Anaheim Ducks. However, it was his struggles in the playoffs that led to the Ducks allowing him to leave as a free agent.
The Canucks and Flames split four meetings this season, with Vancouver winning one of its games in overtime.
Vrbata was the lone Canucks skater to notch multiple goals versus the Flames this season, while Henrik Sedin had a goal and two assists and Daniel Sedin three helpers.
Miller started three of the four meetings and is 4-3-0 with a 2.81 GAA and .907 save percentage in seven all-time matchups with the Flames. Lack is 3-1-0 against them in four games with a 1.49 GAA and .940 save percentage.
Hudler had a goal and three assists in four encounters with the Canucks this season. Monahan scored twice with an assist and both Gaudreau and Jones had a goal and two helpers in the season series.
Hiller lost both of his starts on the season versus the Canucks, who he is 11-6-4 against lifetime in 22 games (19 starts) with a 2.96 GAA and .905 save percentage.
The Flames and Canucks will meet for the seventh time in the postseason, but for the first time since the 2004 conference quarterfinals, won in seven games by Calgary. The Flames have won four of the six prior playoff encounters.
These Pacific Division rivals played a tight season series, with each of the last three meetings decided by one goal. The other was a 4-2 Vancouver win back on Oct. 8.
Neither club was expected to make much noise this season, but now one will advance into the second round. Given the tight series and the Flames ability to save their best for late, Calgary figures to move on by the end of a lengthy series.
Sports Network predicted outcome: Flames in 7