Playoff Preview: Colorado Avalanche vs. Calgary Flames

The Calgary Flames enter the playoffs first in the Pacific Division, gaining 107 points in the regular season, and they’ll tangle with the Colorado Avalanche in what could be a wide-open first round. The Avalanche pulled into the second wild card spot in the Western Conference, with 90 points.

The Flames hold the edge in the regular season series, defeating the Avalanche three times and outscoring them 14-10. But Calgary and Colorado have never met in the playoffs before and it’s been a while since the Flames finished first in the Western Conference. The last time that happened was 1988-1989, when Calgary won the Stanley Cup.

Both teams haven’t enjoyed much post-season success as of late. The Flames haven’t made it past the first round since 2015, while the Avalanche haven’t done so since 2008. Colorado’s seen a return of fortune somewhat, having made the playoffs last season as well as this year. That marks the first time since 2006 they’ve made the post-season in consecutive seasons.

For the Flames, it’s about offence. They’ve got five players with at least 70 points and lead the Western Conference in goal-scoring. They post an average of 3.542 goals per game, second in the league, but things taper off on the power play. The Avalanche is 10th in goals per game with 3.146, while their power play is sharper at 22 percent – seventh overall.

Scoring

For Colorado, it’s mostly about the top line. Nathan MacKinnon, Mikko Rantanen and Gabriel Landeskog came up with 41.1 percent of the scoring during the regular season. They produced 106 of 258 goals. MacKinnon brushed right up against 100 points, scoring 99 with 41 goals and 58 helpers. He had a dozen goals on the power play.

Rantanen is second with 87 points, including 31 goals. 16 of his goals came on the power play. He has the lowest shot totals of the top line, with 193 to MacKinnon’s 365 and Landeskog’s 243. Landeskog had 75 points in the regular season, including 34 goals. He posted 10 power play goals and, like the rest of the top unit, is a plus-player.

After the top line, things drift a little. Carl Soderberg had a career best 23 goals and a total of 49 points, including two goals on the power play. The 33-year-old has 20 games of playoff experience and produced two assists during last year’s run with the Avalanche. J.T. Compher is another factor. He had 16 goals in 66 games, including four on the power play.

Calgary’s offence is to be feared. Their attack is the most diverse in the post-season, starting with Johnny Gaudreau. Johnny Hockey had 99 points this season, including 36 goals and 63 assists. The 25-year-old is playing the best hockey of his career and that’s apparent in just about every way. He’s a plus-18 player, too, the best plus-minus in his career.

Sean Monahan is second with 82 points, also his career best. The 24-year-old from Brampton has 34 goals, including a dozen on the power play, and he’s played an accountable game with just a dozen penalty minutes. Elias Lindholm trails him by three points, totalling 27 goals with nine on the power play.

Matthew Tkachuk posted 77 points, a huge step up from previous years. He had 34 goals in 80 games. He’d like to put last year’s playoffs behind him, as he appeared in just four games and didn’t manage a point. Mark Giordano is the last of Calgary’s 70-point players, with 74 in 78 games. The defenceman had 17 goals, second best in his storied career.

Defence

Colorado allowed 244 goals against, 16th in the NHL. They’re penalty kill is 28th overall at just 78.7 percent. Against Calgary’s offence, there’s every indication that the Avalanche could run into trouble. That doesn’t mean there aren’t highlights, of course, and things get started with Tyson Barrie.

Barrie is having a career year and he hopes that carries over into the post-season. The blueliner had 14 goals and 45 assists for a total of 59 points. Averaging 21:47 a game, the 27-year-old can quarterback the play and lead the attack from his own end. He’s not the most physical player in the world, but he’s got a slick point shot.

For containment purposes, Colorado will probably swing to Erik Johnson a lot. He averaged 21:49 a game in the regular season and came up with seven goals. The 31-year-old has 10 years of league experience and possesses a mean streak, so he’ll see a lot of hard-hitting assignments against Calgary. Ian Cole, likewise, will play shutdown hockey.

The Flames would like to be tighter defensively, but they do hold the overall edge on the Avalanche in the category. Giordano is as good as any blueliner in these playoffs and he’ll be looking to make a splash. His offensive contributions are noted, but the 35-year-old averages 24:15 of ice time a game and can control play in a tenacious way.

T.J. Brodie is another important piece of the Calgary D. Averaging 21:28 of ice time a game, the 28-year-old is a smooth skater and a fast player. He can power the man-advantage and gets into the rush, propelling the offence from the defensive zone. Travis Hamonic, averaging 20:52 of ice time a game, can play just about any role asked of him. He’ll probably shutdown Colorado’s top line.

Calgary’s defence is a dense mix of offensive and defensive play, which gives them a well-adjusted approach and plenty of options. They should be able to make modifications on the fly. They can play physically or quarterback the attack with slick skating, producing as flexible a style as we’re likely to see in the first round.

Goaltending

Thanks to his top-tier play down the stretch, the playoffs belong to Philipp Grubauer. The Avalanche netminder is 9-2-2 since February 23, which put him in the position to snip the starting gig from Semyon Varlamov. Grubauer was influential in helping Colorado pull into that wild card spot and the Avalanche are hoping for more heroics in the post-season.

That, of course, shines a lot on Varlamov. He’s played in just seven playoff games for Colorado since joining the squad in 2011-2012 and that has to sting, but he hasn’t exemplified the self-possession to take over the gig when it counts. He did start 49 games in the regular season, winning 20, but his deeper numbers leave a lot to be desired.

Calgary spent a lot of the regular season going through some well-documented goaltender drama, but the netminders pulled it together when it mattered most. Mike Smith and David Rittich have proven they can coexist, but it’ll be Smith who likely gets the nod – at least in Game One. Smith is the more experienced and he seems to get better with more important games on the line.

Rittich went 27-9-5 with a .911 save percentage and a 2.61 goals against average. That compares to Smith’s .898 save percentage and 2.73 goals against average, but it’s the latter’s 1.94 goals against average in his last 11 starts that tilts the scales in his favour. Still, it’s nice to know that Calgary has two accomplished netminders to work with.

Prediction

Calgary holds the edge in just about every meaningful category and that’s probably suggestive as to how this series bears out. The Avalanche boast a stellar top line and can get solid goaltending, but they’ll undoubtedly collide with the Flames in a bad way. If Calgary keeps up the drive and plays their brand of hockey, this could be a quick series.

Because we’re going to love seeing the Red Mile go wild, the Flames win this in five games.

(Photo credit: NHL.com)

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