DENVER – Nathan MacKinnon has officially taken over this series.
The first hint of the Avalanche star’s heroics came at the end of Game 2 when his overtime snipe in Calgary equaled the series.
It was his first goal in 12 shots.
On Monday it snowballed.
By the end of the first period alone the speedy centre had two power play goals, an assist, four shots and he drew a penalty in an easy win to put the Avalanche up 2-1 in the series.
By the end of the period Colorado had outshot Calgary 21-8, outscored them 3-0 and had helped make history when Calgary-born Cale Makar became the first defenceman in NHL lore to make his NHL debut in the playoffs and score a goal in the same game.
From there the Avalanche cruised to a 6-2 win that saw the hosts electrify the Pepsi Center by humiliating a Flames team that would have lost by at least a touchdown had it not been for the brilliance of Mike Smith.
It got so bad the coach and Smith were involved in a discussion in the second intermission revolving around whether he wanted a mercy-pull.
“Yes there was,” admitted Smith, who had faced 40 shots at that point to be the Flames best player for the third straight game.
“I honestly just didn’t want to come out of that game and have Ritter (David Rittich) have to go in for the third like that. You want to be in there battling with your team no matter what the score is.”
It’s unclear whether his teammates felt the same way.
There’s a real sense at this point the vintage performance from the Flames’ 37-year-old netminder is being wasted, as he faced an unheard of 56 shots all told.
The easy thing would be to point out MacKinnon is the only superstar in the series to play as such, but this one wasn’t on Johnny Gaudreau.
It’s on the entire Flames squad, which promised to be better after Game 2.
They promised to be hungrier.
They promised to be grittier.
They promise to be done in five games if they continue to play like this.
“We got down and then we just played high-risk hockey the rest of the night and they made us pay,” said Flames captain Mark Giordano.
“We’ve got to regroup here and our compete level has to go way up. There wasn’t much good, honestly, throughout the night. We made that team look and feel good all night.”
The western conference champs were manhandled from the get-go by an eighth-placed Avalanche team that is on a tremendous role of late, thanks to blazing speed and stellar netminding.
On Monday they didn’t need the latter – they just needed MacKinnon to get things rolling.
The 23-year-old set the tone early, giving the hosts endless confidence heading into Wednesday’s Game 4.
His first goal came eight minutes in on a five-on-three that saw him use that release few players in the world can duplicate to beat a screened Smith.
Five minutes later he did it again, drawing a penalty on Oscar Fantenberg with his speed before setting up Makar in the slot for a goal that had a raucous gathering on their feet celebrating when it was announced it was his first goal.
Fact is, they already knew, as the anticipation of his arrival has been as high as the team’s current confidence.
They can thank MacKinnon and the Flames for that.
When Ian Cole is allowed to come in alone twice in one shorthanded shift against you, there are pressing mental lapses that need to be addressed.
“The penalties were definitely a recipe for disaster,” said Smith.
“You go five-on-three for two minutes with the guys they have over there its tough battling back from that. Tough start.”
Smith was hung out to dry all night long, facing endless odd man rushes and point-blank shots.
That was the case midway through the game when Matt Nieto scored his second shorthanded goal of the series.
One of the lone bright spots in the Flames lineup, Sam Bennett, got his fourth point in the series when he scored his first goal.
Bennett tried his best to drag his team into the fight in the third by trying to fight Matt Calvert, earning him a ten-minute misconduct.
Matthew Tkachuk, who has also been silenced since Game 1, received a double minor and misconduct late for dropping the mitts with Gabriel Landeskog and giving him a punch that bloodied the Avs captain.
The few signs of fight from a Calgary team desperate to come up with a response so sorely needed to a monumental beat down.
“We won the west but that doesn’t matter now,” said Elias Lindholm.
“We know we’re a good team. Right now we’re not playing our game – our details are in no man’s land I think. We’ve got to get back to playing the right way every shift.”