Wed. May 22nd, 2019

NHL First Round Playoff Preview: Flames vs. Avalanche

The Flames excelled this season, clinching the best record in the Western Conference for the first time since 1990. With a balanced scoring attack led by superstar Johnny Gaudreau, and a Norris-caliber season from defenseman Mark Giordano, the Flames will look to put it all together and win their first playoff series since 2015, make the Cup Finals for the first time since 2004, and eventually bring the Cup back to Calgary for the first time since 1989.

Meanwhile, the Avalanche have made the playoffs in back-to-back seasons since the lockout in 2005. After a historically bad season in 2017, they recovered to make the playoffs as a wild card last year and put up a valiant effort against the President’s Trophy winning Predators before bowing out in six games. Now, they look to exercise some playoff demons of their own, looking to win their first series since 2008, and first Cup since 2001.

In the first meeting between these western adversaries, will the Flames continue their excellent regular season and make a deep playoff run? Or, will it be the Avalanche upending the Flames and making noise of their own?

OFFENSE

The Flames boast one of the most complete and lethal offenses in the league, generating 3.52 goals per game, tied with San Jose and second only to Tampa. They are led by superstar Johnny Gaudreau, who amassed 99 points on the campaign, but boast depth behind him in guys like Sean Monahan, Elias Lindholm, and Matthew Tkachuck, all of whom produced over 75 points. Meanwhile, defenseman Mark Giordano made a significant contribution of 74 points from the back end. Plus, they can roll four lines that can all score prolifically on their opposition when called upon.

The Avalanche are no slump at scoring themselves, however. They boast the 10th best goals per game at 3.15 and are led by one of the most dynamic lines in hockey in Mikko Rantanen-Nathan Mackinnon-Gabriel Landeskog. However, Landeskog and Rantanen are just returning from injury, so whether they can play to their potential is still to be determined. The secondary scoring is somewhat lacking behind them, with the next leading scorer a defenseman in Tyson Barrie and only two other forwards above 30 points. If the top line is not healthy and can be shut down, that is terrible news for the Avs.

Advantage: Flames

DEFENSE

The Flames blue line is formidable, giving up 2.72 goals per game (9th in the league). They boast the Norris front runner in Mark Giordano, who had himself an incredible campaign at age 35 but also boasts lockdown talent in guys like TJ Brodie, Noah Hanifin, and Travis Hamonic. While not the strongest top 4 in the league, it does more than enough to shut opponents down enough while their high-flying offense does its work.

The Avs, meanwhile, are less impressive on the back end. While they boast some good talent in guys like Tyson Barrie and Samuel Girard, their blue line man for man is less talented compared to the Calgary blue line. They allowed a pedestrian 3.15 goals per game, 16th in the league. While they may be able to contain some of the Flames’ attack, I doubt they’ll be able to fully neutralize the firepower Calgary will bring.

Advantage: Flames

GOALTENDING

The Flames goaltending has been a source of concern at times this year. When starter Mike Smith struggled at the beginning of the year, they brought in David Rittich, who played well. However, Mike Smith has played better as of recent, but still has a 2.73 goals against average and a .898 save percentage. Meanwhile, Rittich has better numbers (2.61 GAA, .911), but has struggled recently. If they cannot figure this out, they could run into trouble in the playoffs.

The Avalanche have a dilemma of their own in net. Starter Semyon Varlamov started the year spectacularly but has fallen off recently, and now boasts a mediocre 2.87 GAA and .909 save percentage. Meanwhile, backup Philipp Grubauer has played better recently, posting a 2.64 GAA and a .917 save percentage. Presumably, Grubauer will get the start, but in a similar situation last year against the Blue Jackets, he was pulled after one game and two periods for his mediocre play. However, if Grubauer or Varlamov can play to their expectations, they could hold a slight edge over the Calgary netminders.

Advantage: Avalanche

SPECIAL TEAMS

For how prolific their offense is, the Flames only tally 19.3% on the power play, 18th in the league. They also only boast a 79.7% penalty kill, 21st in the league. Their total special teams’ percentage comes to 99%, just below average (100% is average).

Meanwhile, the Avs have a substantially better PP at 22%, good for 7th in the league. While their PK is slightly worse at 78.7% (25th), the strength of their PP gives them the special teams edge at 100.7%.

Advantage: Avalanche

COACHING

Calgary’s Bill Peters has never coached in the playoffs, after missing them the four previous years as the coach in Carolina. He has, however, coached the Canadian IIHF World Championship team to a gold medal.

Meanwhile, Jared Bednar has actually coached in a playoff series before, last year versus the Predators, despite being a head coach for two fewer years than Peters. He also coached the Lake Erie Monsters to a Calder Cup in 2016. With these two relatively new coaches squaring off, I’ll give the slight edge to the one that’s been there before as a head coach.

Advantage: Avalanche

SEASON SERIES

Oct 13-Flames 3, Avalanche 2 (OT) in Colorado

Nov 1-Flames 6, Avalanche 5 in Calgary

Jan 9-Flames 5, Avalanche 3 in Calgary

Flames: 3-0 in season series, 2-0 at home, 1-0 at Colorado

Avalanche: 0-2-1 in season series, 0-0-1 at home, 0-2 at Calgary

Advantage: Flames

COMING INTO THE PLAYOFFS…

Calgary finished 9-5, losing their last 2. All games were decided in regulation.

Colorado went 8-0-2 before losing their last game in regulation (which proved to be largely meaningless).

Advantage: Colorado

OTHER FACTORS

The Flames have not won a playoff game since 2015, but the Avs have never won a series since 2008. They have never faced each other in a playoff series before.

PREDICTION

While the Avalanche indeed have made the playoffs in back to back years for the first time in over a decade, I fear they have run into a Flames team that is just on a different level than them. With a more complete offense and defense, the Flames could make quick work of an Avs team that didn’t even win half its games and was prone to inconsistent struggles throughout the year. Plus, the Pacific division has seen at least one first-round sweep the last two years. Nothing personal, Avs fans.

Prediction: Flames in a sweep

GAME ONE-Thurs, 10pm, NBCSN (nat’l), SN (Flames), ALT (Avs)

 

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