CALGARY – From best in the west to finished in five.
Minutes after the Calgary Flames‘ improbable, 50-win season came to a crashing end Friday, a stunned group of players shared one common explanation for how it all slipped away: Nathan MacKinnon.
“For anyone who doesn’t think MacKinnon is one of the best, if not the best, they might want to look at this series because he can really turn it on up to another level,” said Flames captain Mark Giordano, following the Flames fourth-straight loss to the Colorado Avalanche.
“Tough player to play against and I thought he really took control and led their team.”
Mike Smith agreed.
“He was a beast,” said the Flames netminder, who was solid for the fifth-straight game despite losing 5-1 in a game where MacKinnon had three assists.
“He really took charge of the whole series even from Game 1, and he carried it through and led by example. He’s a heck of a player and he can turn a game around and he did that in this series.”
Make no mistake, the west’s eighth seed was infinitely better and faster than the Western Conference champions.
The Avalanche’s three juggernauts led the charge in a series marked by the absence of all the Flames top players.
MacKinnon, Mikko Rantanen and Gabriel Landeskog stole the show once again Friday, accounting for three goals and seven points in an elimination game that sent a stunned C of Red gathering home shaking their heads in disbelief.
All told, the Avs big three had nine goals and 21 points in the series, while Calgary’s top line of Johnny Gaudreau, Sean Monahan and Elias Lindholm had two goals and five points.
On Friday, when needed most, they had none, despite Gaudreau’s best game of the series.
He was thwarted on three first period breakaways, which included a penalty shot that saw him dangle in too tight on Philipp Grubauer before a weak shot was stopped.
Gaudreau took plenty of opportunities to share his displeasure with officials, who later waved off a Flames goal by him that was clearly preceded by incidental contact between Sam Bennett and Erik Johnson on Grubauer.
It would have made it 3-2, but things snowballed from there, leaving No. 13 with one assist in the series.
“He tried – I’m telling you, he tried,” said coach Bill Peters of Gaudreau.
“He had more looks than he’s getting credit for this series. For our team the harder we tried the bigger the hole we dug. The strengths that we had in the regular season weren’t strengths in Round 1. I can’t tell you why some of those went away.”
Gaudreau was at a loss to explain the stunning demise of a club that had its second-best regular season in franchise history.
Now they are history, just like the east beasts from Tampa.
“I mean, obviously – we lost,” said Gaudreau when asked if he was frustrated.
“Didn’t find the net when I should’ve a couple times throughout the series.
“We didn’t play the way we played throughout the year. I think a couple games, those overtime games, we had the lead in both games and they found a way to tie it and win in overtime. We’ve got to find a way to win those games.
“Obviously we had high expectations for ourselves. We had a great regular season. Kind of played a little flatfooted there in a couple games and now the season is over.”
Although the Flames played one of their better games in the series, the opportunistic Avs grabbed a 2-0 lead in the first period thanks to Landeskog and Rantanen, who spent the rest of the evening infuriating the desperate opposition.
T.J. Brodie, who also played his best game of the series, scored with 5.5 second left in the first to give the hosts hope, only to see Colin Wilson shatter dreams of a comeback with consecutive scores in the second.
Rantanan’s second of the game opened the third period, giving fans another 19 minutes to digest the monumental collapse of a team that swept Colorado in their three-game regular season series.
It prompted a fan to throw a jersey onto the ice in disgust.
Sure, the Flames twice had leads in the final three minutes they squandered, eventually losing in overtime.
Yet, Games 3 and 5 were humiliating blowouts, sending the Avalanche on to face either Vegas or San Jose following their first series win since 2008.
Meanwhile, the Flames will dissect how the team’s second-best season in club lore unraveled so quickly.
The first answer to come to mind will always be MacKinnon.
“He’s up there with (Connor) McDavid-level type of player,” said Calgary’s Matthew Tkachuk.
“We did a good job in Game 1 (shutting him down) but I think that overtime goal for him kind of got him feeling it a bit in Game 2 and he’s feeling going back home and he picked it up and he was really good.
“I don’t know what happened but we wasted a good opportunity here.”
Peters agreed MacKinnon was a major difference-maker, and not just because of his three goals and five assists.
“That’s the best I’ve seen him,” said Peters.
“I (coached) him at the 2015 worlds. He was a kid at the time and now he’s coming into his own. He’s a man. He’s a big, powerful guy who was really good in this series. They’re a deep team.”