Flames in new ter­ri­tory pre­par­ing to face Jets

Un­prece­dented lay­off be­fore play­offs pro­vides unique test for Ward’s staff

Calgary Herald - - SPORTS - WES GILBERTSON wgilbert­son@postmedia.com Twit­ter.com/wes­gilbert­son

Dur­ing an hour-long video call with lo­cal me­dia, no­body asked Cal­gary Flames in­terim coach Ge­off Ward who would be start­ing in net for Game 1 of their post-pan­demic play-in series.

There’ll be plenty of time for that. Tons of time.

Ward and his be­hind-the-bench bud­dies are now fac­ing an un­prece­dented sce­nario — a pro­longed pause, a mid­sum­mer restart and then the sud­den shift from the monotony of train­ing camp to the in­ten­sity of a post-sea­son series … and with two months (or more) to think about it.

Teams typ­i­cally have a hand­ful of days to prep for a play­off as­sign­ment. Not a hand­ful of weeks.

“We of­ten talk as coaches about want­ing to play your best hockey at the end of the year, at the most im­por­tant time of the year,” Ward said. “And for us, this isn’t any dif­fer­ent — we want to be play­ing our best hockey. But now we have to do it com­ing out of a break.”

If not, their stay in the NHL’S play­off bub­ble won’t last long.

We know now that the Flames, as the eighth seed in the West­ern Con­fer­ence, will meet the Win­nipeg Jets in a best-of-five play-in series, the first stage of the NHL’S 24-team post-sea­son for­mat.

We don’t know when, with the time­line still TBA due to the COVID-19 crisis. (Team fa­cil­i­ties will re­open soon for small-group skates, but train­ing camps won’t be­gin un­til at least July.)

We don’t know where, al­though 10 po­ten­tial hub ci­ties have been short­listed.

We don’t know who will be Cal­gary’s go-to goalie, with the de­bate — David Rit­tich or Cam Tal­bot?

— re­ally start­ing to heat up right be­fore the pan­demic hit.

Ward and his as­sis­tants will cer­tainly study the Jets — that process started long be­fore the re­turn-toplay plan was made of­fi­cial — but he also stressed that they don’t want to “fo­cus on Win­nipeg so, so much that we’re frozen by it.”

Af­ter all, the ul­ti­mate goal isn’t to sim­ply sur­vive the qual­i­fi­ca­tion round.

“The most im­por­tant thing for us is, ‘How are we go­ing to de­liver our pro­gram so that we’re ready to play?’ ” Ward said. “We’ve done an aw­ful lot of things in the past nine or 10 weeks. We have pre-scouted nu­mer­ous teams, not only in the West­ern Con­fer­ence but the East­ern Con­fer­ence. We’ve watched how teams play in both con­fer­ences. We’ve watched Euro­pean teams. We’ve watched the old NHL games that have been on, the world cham­pi­onships … There are al­ways things you can glean from watch­ing, so we’ve done an aw­ful lot of things like that.

“We have also talked to a num­ber of coaches in a va­ri­ety of dif­fer­ent sports. I’ve talked to them about how you deal with lay­offs, and what do you think the best sce­nario to re­turn to play is? We’re try­ing to leave noth­ing un­turned in terms of de­cid­ing ul­ti­mately where we’re go­ing to go with our plan. We feel right now like our plan is fairly in place.

“Ob­vi­ously, now we get to study Win­nipeg a lit­tle bit more,” he con­tin­ued. “But it’s more about us. I’ve talked about that all year — ‘The most im­por­tant thing is us.’ So as much as we re­spect our op­po­nent, we know what their strengths are, we know what they’re go­ing to of­fer us and we know how they’re go­ing to play in all sit­u­a­tions and what they’re go­ing to bring to the ta­ble, the most im­por­tant thing for us is, ‘What are we go­ing to do? Let’s get to our game, and what’s that go­ing to in­volve?’

“Be­cause what we want to do is make sure that when the puck drops in the first game, we are ready to go and we’re fir­ing on all cylin­ders. For us, re­ally, that’s where the fo­cus has to be with our prepa­ra­tion. It’s about the Cal­gary Flames and it’s about pre­par­ing the Cal­gary Flames for play­off hockey. The Win­nipeg Jets are our first op­po­nent, and then we’ll take it from there.”

When the Sad­dle­dome re­opens for small-group work­outs, there will be a max­i­mum of six play­ers al­lowed in the arena at one time.

Coaches will not be al­lowed on the ice for those vol­un­tary skates. In fact, the skip­pers can’t have any con­tact with the stars dur­ing Phase 2 of the NHL’S re­launch.

In­stead, Ward & Co. will con­tinue to tin­ker with their train­ing-camp plan, walk­ing a fine line be­tween try­ing to sim­u­late high­stakes game ac­tion but also not risk­ing in­juries to guys who have been mostly lim­ited to Pelo­ton rides and rollerblad­ing dur­ing this lengthy lay­off. As he put it: “The key or se­cret is fig­ur­ing out how to get your team play­ing the best com­ing out of that time frame.”

What we want to do is make sure when the puck drops in the first game ... we’re fir­ing on all cylin­ders

GAVIN YOUNG

Cal­gary Flames in­terim head coach Ge­off Ward says “we’ve done an aw­ful lot of things in the past nine or 10 weeks” to pre­pare for the up­com­ing Stan­ley Cup play­offs.

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