(SportsNetwork.com) - Few people had either Calgary or Vancouver in the playoffs before the season started, but on Wednesday evening the Canucks will host the Flames at Rogers Arena for Game 1 of the Western Conference quarterfinals.
The Canucks experienced a quicker-than-expected turnaround under first-year head coach Willie Desjardins and are back in the postseason for the sixth time in seven seasons, 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' instincts as a head coach will be tested right away, as he seems to be going with Eddie Lack as the starting goaltender in Game 1 over Ryan Miller, who was the club's No. 1 netminder before suffering a knee injury in late February. Miller returned from the injury to play in the regular-season finale, but Lack is in better game shape and all signs point to him as the Game 1 starter.
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.
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.
Like the Canucks, the Flames weren't really expected to be contenders this season and did not make the playoffs last season. Also 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. Giordano is still out and could miss the entire playoffs unless Calgary makes it deep into the postseason.
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.
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.
Hartley at times this season leaned on both 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.
Ramo did return to practice on Tuesday, but it's unlikely he will be able to play in Game 1.
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.
"It's going to be loud in both arenas and it's an exciting time," said Daniel Sedin. "After missing the playoffs last year, it's fun to be back and we're looking forward to the game tomorrow."
Game 2 of this series is scheduled for Friday in Vancouver.