DENVER – Johnny Gaudreau is not the reason the Calgary Flames are reeling, down 2-1 against a surging Avalanche squad.
That has more to do with Nathan MacKinnon.
Heading into the matchup, and throughout the series, you can’t mention one without the other. Two superstars coming off 99-point seasons, who are having dramatically different impacts on this series.
One is running away with it, the other has been pedestrian at best.
Gaudreau’s playoff performance has been a concern in Calgary for several years, as many wonder if the undersized winger is capable of elevating his game when physicality increases, whistles are muted and time and space are at a premium.
Gaudreau was a non-factor in the Flames’ four-game loss to Anaheim two years ago, picking up just two assists and finishing minus-4 with eight shots.
So far in this series the storyline has been similar as he has one assist.
“Everyone has got to be better – not just one guy,” said Gaudreau, well aware the questioning was pointing out his obvious shortcomings this spring.
“We’re a team here. We’re a team of 23 here and all of us are going to be better next game and that’s one of the things we talked about.”
He’s certainly right, as his team has far too many passengers on board. It’s incumbent on Gaudreau to be one of the drivers.
Three provinces to the east the people in Toronto are preparing to commission a statue of Mitch Marner for his playoff efforts throughout the Leafs’ 2-1 series edge.
He and Gaudreau are built and wired much the same way as speedy, diminutive playmakers. One has found a way to make a difference offensively and defensively.
The other hasn’t.
“Obviously I haven’t gotten too many looks – they’ve done a good job defensively,” said Gaudreau, 25, following sobering team meetings Tuesday dissecting a 6-2 loss in which the Flames surrendered 56 shots.
“Last game felt like we were in the d-zone most of the game, which was unfortunate.”
They sure were, as Avalanche coach Jared Bednar was delighted in matching up MacKinnon’s line (with Gabriel Landeskog and Alex Kerfoot) with Gaudreau’s line (alongside Sean Monahan and Elias Lindholm).
It’s a sad commentary to point out what a mismatch it is on how Calgary’s top line has performed early on in this series.
Gaudreau and his gang need to take a different tack to be as effective as they were before the all-star break when they were one of the league’s most dangerous trios.
“In the end everyone is going to look to your top players in a series,” said Flames assistant GM Craig Conroy. “Johnny is not going to be a physical guy. For me, Johnny has got to figure out what’s going to make him effective in this series.
“When you’re the best player they’re coming after you and you have to relish that. It probably hasn’t gone the way he’s wanted it, but we’ve got a long series here and we’re going to need Johnny to figure out how to have an impact on the game and once he does that will spark the whole team.”
Let’s be clear, a hat trick from Gaudreau Monday probably couldn’t have bridged the gap between the high-flying Avs and the back-on-their-heels Flames.
Most of the questions thrown at Flames players Tuesday revolved around how the Flames can stop MacKinnon, whose speed is rivalled only by Connor McDavid.
His two goals, assist, drawn penalty and four shots in the first period alone blew the game wide open.
The Avs turned Game 3 into a track meet, which doesn’t suit a Flames club that was significantly outplayed the last two games.
“Obviously he’s a good player,” said Gaudreau, who tied for seventh in league scoring this year with MacKinnon.
“He’s playing well right now. He’s finding the net, he’s skating with a lot of speed, so as a team we have to shut him down. Our line will probably be matched against him so hopefully we’ll play in the offensive zone a little more next game against them.”
That would sure help ease the pressure on Mike Smith, who has unquestionably been the Flames’ MVP this spring.
It’s certainly worth noting Gaudreau played a significant role offensively four years back when the Flames upset Vancouver. On any given night he can finish with five points.
The concern is, his impact on games the last few months has diminished significantly. It needs to turn and soon.
“We’ve got to get back to the way we were playing all year,” said Gaudreau, whose club is vowing not to panic – after all, a win by the Western Conference champs Wednesday gives them home ice advantage again.
“It’s a little wakeup call there. We learned a lot of things from last game. We didn’t play like we’ve played all year and we know that.
“We’ll be better.”