Flames thinking big ahead of opener at Winnipeg

The expectations among the Calgary Flames are as high as the Rocky Mountains that tower one hour west of the city.

Those expectations go well beyond simply collecting a victory in their season-opening clash against the host Winnipeg Jets on Thursday night.

“We know we’re going to be judged off the playoffs,” Calgary forward Matthew Tkachuk said. “We have a very competitive team and too many disappointing endings in the past years we want to change. We have to change it. We’ll be ready to go to try to redeem ourselves after the last two seasons in particular.”

Considering the Flames have been punted in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs in each of the past two seasons, those are rather mighty aspirations. The Flames are a good bet to reach the playoffs in the all-Canadian North Division but are hardly a slam dunk.

On the surface, they made some laudable moves in the offseason after being eliminated by the Dallas Stars, notably adding goaltender Jacob Markstrom and defenseman Chris Tanev via free agency from the Vancouver Canucks. The Flames also are bolstered with the return of young defenseman Juuso Valimaki, who missed all of last season due to injury, and improved their forward depth by adding Dominik Simon, Josh Leivo and Joakim Nordstrom.

That supporting cast will bode well with a team that boasts a strong collection of forwards in the likes of Tkachuk, Johnny Gaudreau, Sean Monahan, Elias Lindholm and Mikael Backlund.

“We’re ready to play a real game and our comfort level is good,” Calgary coach Geoff Ward said.

The Jets — who were eliminated by the Flames during the qualifying round for the 2020 Stanley Cup tournament — had a much quieter offseason. Their biggest addition was Paul Stastny, who will center the second line, with other key newcomers being defenseman Derek Forbort and forwards Nate Thompson and Trevor Lewis, who will fill depth roles.

As is true for Calgary, the Jets are pegged to be in the dogfight for a playoff spot. They possess depth on the first three lines and Vezina Trophy-winning goaltender Connor Hellebuyck, who is key to overcoming Winnipeg’s weak defense corps. Although the betting lines do not see the Jets as good as the team that reached the 2018 conference final, they look be in the hunt.

“Everyone is jacked up to play hockey. Coaches want to coach, players want to play,” Jets coach Paul Maurice said. “This is a short season, they came to camp in shape. They know that we’ve got to go right from the start. There’s a lot of pent-up excitement and enthusiasm and probably aggression, we’ll see early.”

While there may be some bad blood carried over from their last season series — notably Winnipeg’s Mark Scheifele sustaining an Achilles injury after a collision with Tkachuk (which Maurice called “disgusting” and said it was a kick) — it’s not expected to create too many fireworks. Still, there is extra motivation on the part of the Jets players.

“We got beat in that series and I’m still bitter about it,” Hellebuyck said. “For me, personally, I’m going to use it as motivation. It would be crazy for us not to use it.”

That said, with a 56-game season featuring all intra-divisional play, settling scores should not be front and center on players’ minds.

“Every game matters,” Jets defenseman Nathan Beaulieu said. “You get behind the eight-ball early this season and it’s gonna be a tough grind to get back.”

The Jets took a couple of losses on the eve of the season with depth defenseman Luca Sbisa and third-string goalie Eric Comrie claimed by other teams off waivers. Sbisa went to the Nashville Predators while Comrie moved to the New Jersey Devils.

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