Weirdly, it wasn’t the most shocking or heartbreaking playoff exit of the season. The Calgary Flames, winners of the Pacific Division, winners of the Western Conference, and second overall in the NHL only to the powerhouse Tampa Bay Lightning, saw their season come to an end on home ice last night. After winning the first game of their round one matchup against the second wildcard Colorado Avalanche, the Flames dropped four straight to lose in five quick games, outscored 17-11 and outshot 205-164 in the process.
The series might have officially ended last night, but the writing has been on the wall ever since midway through Game 2. It’s tough to figure out exactly how the best regular season in 30 years was so prematurely halted just over one week into the Spring. What makes it even harder is the that the Flames weren’t hindered by poor goaltending, the usual suspect for losses throughout the season.
What went wrong?
The Flames beat the Avalanche all three times in the regular season, but that record isn’t indicative of what was a very close season series between the two clubs. The Avalanche’s failure to beat the Flames had more to do with Nathan MacKinnon, Mikko Rantanen, and Gabriel Landeskog‘s inability to capitalize on Grade-A scoring chances, and Semyon Varlamov‘s inability to stop the puck. The playoffs were a different story altogether, and MacKinnon’s turbo drive coupled with stellar goaltending from Philipp Grubauer were two obstacles the Flames just couldn’t overcome.
On offence, MacKinnon shredded the Flames defence with speedy zone entries, and an incredible ability to generate shots from dangerous areas. One consistent statistic that favoured MacKinnon’s line throughout the series was his scoring chance percentage (SCF%) and high danger chance percentage (HDCF%). Cumulatively through the five games, MacKinnon, Rantanen, and Landeskog posted 58.4%, 55.8%, and 62.5% SCF%; and 57.8%, 61.1%, and 63.6% HDCF% respectively.
The Flames didn’t have an answer for MacKinnon’s combination of speed and skill; when they backed away to cover his speed, he burned them with skilled stickhandling and precision passes to his all-star linemates; when they played closer and applied pressure, he burned them with speed to the outside. There is no doubt that the Avalanche’s top line is one of the best lines in the world on their worst days, and even the probable Norris Trophy winner couldn’t shut them down on his own.
Again, this wasn’t something the Flames hadn’t experienced before. In the regular season, MacKinnon and Co. had an excellent three games against the Flames. They were well aware of his body of work. Where things differed was on the other end: the Flames’ weapons looked like water guns compared to the Avalanche’s bazookas. For whatever reason, be it injuries or regression or bad luck, the Flames’ top line was ineffective for months heading into the playoffs and that didn’t change after Game 82. The Avalanche were fairly average outside of their top line, but when MacKinnon is playing 23.47 TOI per game through the series, average from the rest is all they needed.
Still, with everything that happened with MacKinnon’s dominance and the Flames struggling to answer the bell, this series was ultimately swung by special teams. The Avalanche had one of the best power plays in the regular season and it should have been a priority to stay out of the penalty box. The Avalanche scored five power play goals in the series on 25 opportunities, most in the league at the time of elimination, good for 20% The Flames, in both games that went into overtime, had power play chances to win the game and weren’t able to capitalize. At five-on-five the two teams were fairly even in terms of scoring goals, but that wasn’t the case on the man advantage.
Where do we go from here?
It would be irresponsible to declare this Flames season a disappointment. Even the best analysts didn’t think of the Flames as a team who would contend for the division or the conference at the beginning of the season; making the playoffs was the mark for a successful season, especially with so many new players on the team and lots of term left on the contracts for their core pieces. It won’t say Stanley Cup Champions on it, but next season’s home opener will feature a banner raised to the rafters to celebrate an incredible regular season from the team who won 50 games overall and their division by six points.
Like the Lightning, a first round exit from the Flames isn’t reason to blow the team up, and doesn’t mean that their regular season was just smoke and mirrors. This is still a very good team. The Flames didn’t play well for basically the whole series, yet still, two of the Avalanche’s four wins required overtime and could have gone either way. In an alternate universe, it’s the Flames who won in five and are moving on to face Vegas/San Jose in round two. Still, changes need to be made, some by necessity and some by choice.
One of the most interesting things about this season was how fickle the feeling was surrounding the team. When they would lose, players’ names were thrown into often bizarre trade scenarios, borderline AHLers were denoted as the missing pieces and saviours of certain line combinations, and both goaltenders were sent out on ice floes at various points in the year. And this overreaction wasn’t just from the hoards of diehards that populate the Twitter-verse either, this was consistent with panelists on TV, radio personalities, and journalists alike. Were they on to something?
It just didn’t seem like the Flames’ dominance this year could be trusted. However, that probably wasn’t because of glaring problems with the roster or the streaky tendencies of the top line. The hesitation to trust the team was likely due to the unfamiliarity of having a successful, winning hockey team playing out of the Saddledome, nothing more. The Flames had a legitimately excellent season, and a bad 10 days in the playoffs shouldn’t cause us to forget that.
Right now, the team needs to decompress, heal, and focus on the next tasks at hand: the draft and free agency. This season was a success, and calling it anything less would be a misrepresentation of what looks to be the start of a truly fun era of Flames hockey.
The window of contention has just opened. Let’s enjoy it.