Flames Thoughts: Flames have yet to reach full potential in playoffs

Nathan MacKinnon scored two goals and recorded an assist to help the Colorado Avalanche throttle the Calgary Flames in Game 3.

After two disappointing performances, the Calgary Flames head into an important Game 4 looking to avoid a major hole in their series with the Colorado Avalanche.

Here are some Flames Thoughts from the first three games of this first-round series.

FAR FROM THEIR BEST

Over the course of 82 regular season games, the Flames were the best team in the Western Conference. They finished with 50 wins and 107 points, the second-highest totals in the 46-season history of the Atlanta/ Calgary Flames franchise.

They also finished a whopping 17 points ahead of the Avalanche, who didn’t punch their ticket to the post-season until April 4, the third-to-last day of the regular season. With all of that said, three games into their best-of-seven series versus the Flames, the Avalanche have looked like the better team. As strange as this might sound, that might be a good thing for the Flames. Here’s why.

If the Flames were playing well and still being dominated by the Avalanche, it would be difficult to be optimistic about their chances to win the series. The bottom line is the Flames haven’t played anywhere close to their potential in the first three games. Sure, they were good in Game 1, but if Mike Smith wasn’t great in that one, who knows how it would have played out. The Flames weren’t very good in Game 2 but were still less than three minutes away from taking a 2-0 series lead. The Avalanche scored with their goaltender on the bench and an extra attacker on the ice to tie the game and then completed the comeback on a beauty by Nathan Mackinnon in overtime, just seconds after Michael Frolik had a great chance at the other end of the ice.

While I thought that tough-to-swallow loss would be a wake-up call for the Flames, it clearly wasn’t as they were even worse in Game 3. In my opinion, they are too talented, too deep, too good, and too well coached to keep playing bad. After talking to Flames coaches and players today, I predict they’ll bounce back by playing their best game of the series on Wednesday night. If they do, we’ll see if that’s enough against a good Avalanche team that’s playing its best hockey of the season.

BEST OF THE BUNCH

In my opinion, the two best Flames in the first three games of this series have been Smith and forward Sam Bennett.

Smith was world-class in Game 1, when he stopped all 26 shots, added an assist and was the First Star in a 4-0 Flames win. As strange as this might sound, the 37-year-old may have been even better in Game 2, when he put his team in a position to win a game that they deserved to lose, turning aside 36 of 39 shots in a 3-2 overtime loss.

While Smith wasn’t quite as sharp in Game 3, he was probably the Flames’ best player despite surrendering six goals on 56 shots. As a number of his teammates said after the game, the Flames hung their goaltender out to dry at Pepsi Center on Monday night.

Smith is playing his best hockey of the season — maybe in many seasons. If the Flames start playing the right way in front of their veteran goaltender, Smith could do for the 2019 Flames what he did for the 2012 Coyotes — take them deep into the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Another bright spot for the Flames in the first three games of the series has been Bennett. You could make a strong argument that Bennett has played his best hockey as an 18-year-old, a 20-year-old, and now, as a 22-year-old in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Bennett has been both productive — he leads the team with four points — and physical as he’s tied for third on the team with 11 hits.

The man sporting a Lanny McDonald-like moustache has shown a willingness to go to the tough areas, as he did when he redirected a Rasmus Andersson point shot past Philipp Grubauer in Game 3. Five seasons into his NHL career, I think it’s now safe to say the highest draft pick in franchise history (fourth-overall in 2014) is wired to be at his best when games mean the most.

NO MATCH FOR MACKINNON

Even though the Flames managed to keep Nathan MacKinnon off the scoresheet in a 4-0 shutout win in Game 1, the Avalanche centre was still extremely dangerous with five shots on goal and 12 shot attempts. MacKinnon was equally as dangerous in Game 2, and on his 12th shot and 24th attempt of the series, he finally put the puck past Mike Smith at 8:28 in overtime, beating the Flames goaltender with a sizzling snapshot to give the Avalanche a 3-2 win.

Unfortunately for the Flames, MacKinnon was just getting started.

The first-overall pick in the 2013 NHL Draft scored a pair of power play goals and added an assist in Colorado’s convincing 6-2 victory over Calgary in Game 3. Going into Tuesday’s games, MacKinnon led the NHL in post-season shots with 27, was tied for the league-lead in power play goals with two and second in goals with three. MacKinnon also leads all forwards in time on ice, having played an average of 24:07 in the first three games.

MacKinnon’s combination of speed, skill and size makes him almost impossible to stop — but the Flames have to find a way to slow him down, both literally and figuratively. While it’s a lot easier said than done, having tighter gaps at the blue line, which will be easier for the defencemen if the forwards apply back pressure, would be a good start. Ultimately, the Flames have to find a way to make life as difficult for MacKinnon as the Avalanche have for fellow 99-point producer Johnny Gaudreau.

CHASING THEIR TAILS

Between trying to catch MacKinnon and company on the ice and the Avalanche on the scoreboard, the Flames spent far too much time chasing in Games 2 and 3. If they’re going to bounce back in Game 4, the Flames are going to have to play a much more structured brand of hockey.

The Avalanche recorded a franchise-record high 56 shots in Game 3, which is exactly twice the number of shots that the Flames surrendered on average during the regular season, when they led the NHL with just 28.1 shots against per game. Because it’s tough to stick to playing structured hockey when you fall behind by multiple goals early in a game — as the Flames did on Monday night when the Avalanche took a 3-0 lead before the 17-minute mark — ideally the Flames would love to score first on Wednesday night.

If they don’t, they can’t stop playing defence in an attempt to create offence.

SWING GAME

As poorly as the Flames played in Game 3, a win in Game 4 would completely change the complexion of the series. After losing Game 1, the Avalanche stole home ice advantage from the Flames by winning Game 2. If the Flames rebound from Monday’s lopsided loss with a win at Pepsi Center on Wednesday, they would regain home ice advantage going into Game 5 at Scotiabank Saddledome on Friday.

Historically speaking, Game Four 4 been pivotal in best-of-seven series that aren’t already at 3-0. In NHL history, when a series is at 2-1, the winner of Game 4 has gone on to win 330 of 492 series, or 67.1 per cent of the time. 

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