Flames Thoughts: Who will start in net against the Avalanche?

With a tough series on the horizon the Calgary Flames will look to live in the moment in the 2019 NHL Playoffs.

REGULAR SEASON TO REMEMBER
By many measures, the 2018-19 regular season was the second-best in the 46-season history of the Flames franchise in Atlanta and Calgary.

The Flames finished with 50 wins and 107 points, second to only the franchise-record 54 wins and 117 points that the 1988-89 team posted prior to beating the Canucks, Kings, Blackhawks and Canadiens and claiming the franchise’s first-and-only Stanley Cup.

With a 50-25-7 record, the Flames finished atop their division for the first time in 13 seasons dating back to 2005-06 and first in their conference for the first time in 29 years dating back to 1989-90.

The Flames also finished second overall, (winning a tie-breaker with the Bruins who also had 107 points), which means they’ll have home-ice advantage in all four rounds of the playoffs unless they face the Presidents’ Trophy-winning Lightning in a rematch of the 2004 Stanley Cup Final.

From Murray Edwards and the ownership group to Ken King and John Bean and the front office staff to Brad Treliving and the management group to Bill Peters and the coaching staff and last, but not least, to Mark Giordano and the players, congratulations on a regular season to remember.

CAREER YEARS
It was a fantastic regular season for the Flames collectively and for a plethora of their players individually. Here’s a list of Flames players who equalled or established new career-highs in 2018-19 (rookies not included).

– Johnny Gaudreau: Established new career-highs for goals (36), assists (63) and points (99). Notes: Finished tied for seventh in Art Ross Trophy race. Was only Flames player to skate in all 82 games.

– Sean Monahan: Established new career-highs for goals (34), assists (48) and points (82).

– Elias Lindholm: Established new career-highs for goals (27), assists (51) and points (78). Notes: Recorded 10-more goals, 17-more assists and 33-more points than in any of first five NHL seasons. Finished with one fewer point than former Flames’ and current Hurricanes’ Micheal Ferland and Dougie Hamilton did, combined.

– Matthew Tkachuk: Established new career-highs for goals (34), assists (43) and points (77). Notes: Has increased goal totals from 13 to 24 to 34 and point totals from 48 to 49 to 77 in first three NHL seasons, respectively.

– Mark Giordano: Established new career-highs for assists (57) and points (74). Notes: Had one more assist in 2018-19 than he did points in any of his first 12 NHL seasons.

– Derek Ryan: Established new career-high for assists (25), equalled career-high for points (38).

– Noah Hanifin: Established new career-highs for assists (28) and points (33).

– Mark Jankowski: Established new career-highs for assists (18) and points (32). Notes: Finished second in NHL in short-handed points (8) and tied for second in short-handed goals (5).

– Garnet Hathaway: Established new career-highs in goals (11) and points (19).

– Travis Hamonic: Established new career-high for goals (7).

– Austin Czarnik: Established new career-highs for goals (6), assists (12) and points (18).

GIORDANO FOR THE NORRIS
Even though the NHL is a young man’s league more now than probably ever before, in my opinion, an old man, at least by hockey standards, is the best man for the Norris Trophy this season.

Amongst defencemen, Mark Giordano finished the regular season tied for third in the NHL goals with 17 and tied for second in assists with 57. With a career-high 74 points, second-most in the league by a blueliner, the 13-year veteran joined Nicklas Lidstrom and Sergei Zubov as the only d-men in NHL history to record 70-plus points at the age of 35-or-older.

The Flames captain also led the NHL in plus/minus with a plus-39 rating, despite being matched up against opponents’ top players each and every game.

While Giordano faces some stiff competition in the form of the Lightning’s Victor Hedman, Sharks’ Brent Burns and Maple Leafs’ Morgan Rielly, in my opinion, he was the best all-around defenceman in the league this season and deserves to become the first-ever Flames player to win the Norris.

FIVE DEEP
When general manager Brad Treliving addressed media days after his team missed the playoffs last season, he vowed to make the Flames a deeper team in 2018-19. Mission accomplished.

After a day off on Sunday, head coach Bill Peters put his players through their paces during a 40-minute practice at Scotiabank Saddledome on Monday, giving us a glimpse of what his forward lines and defence pairings will likely look like in Game 1 against the Avalanche on Thursday.

WHO WILL TEND THE TWINE?
While Peters wouldn’t confirm who would get the start in goal in Game 1, I’d be pretty surprised if it wasn’t Mike Smith. After a rough start to the season, the much-maligned netminder was stellar both stopping the puck and playing the puck down the stretch.

To illustrate how much Smith improved during the regular season, below are the first-two, middle-two and last-two-plus-month splits for the Flames’ goaltending tandem:

October – November

December – January

February – April

While Rittich’s body of work from October – April is better, statistically speaking, Smith was the better of the two Flames goaltenders in the second-half of the season has looked like a legitimate No. 1 goaltender since the team returned from their nine-day break on Feb. 1.

Smith also has an edge in experience. While Rittich has yet to play a post-season game in the NHL, in 19-career Stanley Cup Playoff games, Smith boasts a ridiculous 1.88 goals-against average and .945 save percentage.

It has been awhile since the Smith played in three post-season games with the Lightning in 2010-11 and almost single-handedly carried the Coyotes to the Western Conference Final in 2011-12, having a much lighter workload than he’s used to has the 37-year-old healthy and fresh for the playoffs.

Smith also has fantastic numbers versus the Avalanche in his career, with an 11-1-4 record, two shutouts, a 2.08 GAA and .931SV%.

With all of that said, if Smith or the Flames struggle, I don’t think Peters would hesitate to turn to Rittich.

While goaltending was an extremely hot and contentious topic in Calgary during the regular season, very rarely did Smith and Rittich struggle at the same time and there’s no way the Flames would have finished first in their division and conference without both goaltenders doing their share.

ROCKY MOUNTAIN SHOWDOWN
For the first time ever, the Atlanta Flames-turned-Calgary Flames will face the Quebec Nordiques-turned-Colorado Avalanche in a Stanley Cup Playoffs series.

I love Denver, in large part, because it reminds me so much of Calgary, so I’m really looking forward to spending some time in the Colorado Capital.

As far as the on-ice product is concerned, I think it has the potential to be series full of speed and skill and (hopefully) lots of goals.

For what it’s worth, the Flames have dominated the Avalanche the last three seasons, winning eight of the nine regular season meetings between the two teams by a combined score of 38-24.

For the second time in three years, the Flames swept their season series versus the Avalanche in 2018-19, winning 3-2 at Pepsi Center in Denver on Oct. 13, 6-5 at Scotiabank Saddledome on Nov. 1 and 5-3 in Calgary on Jan. 9.

Here’s how the two teams matchup statistically:
Flames: 50-25-7, 107 points, 1st in Pacific, 1st in West, T-2nd in NHL
Goals For: 3.52 / game (T-2nd)
Goals Against: 2.72 (9th)
Power Play: 19.3 (18th)
Penalty Kill: 79.7 (T-19th)
Faceoffs: 52.4 (3rd)

Avalanche: 38-30-14, 90 points, 5th in Central, 8th in West, 17th in NHL
Goals For: 3.15 / game (10th)
Goals Against: 2.98 (16th)
Power Play: 22.0 (7th)
Penalty Kill: 78.7 (25th)
Faceoffs: 48.1 (26th)

The Flames, who clinched a playoff spot on March 17 and were able to start resting key players after securing first place in their division and conference on March 31, have five healthy forward lines, five healthy defence pairings and two healthy goaltenders going into the playoffs. The Avalanche, who didn’t clinch a post-season birth until last Saturday, the final day of the regular season, aren’t able to say the same.

After missing nine games with an upper-body injury, captain Gabriel Landeskog was able to return to the lineup for the final four games, but may not be 100 per cent.

Meanwhile, Nathan MacKinnon’s other winger, Mikko Rantanen, who missed the last seven games of the regular season with an undisclosed injury, is questionable for Game 1 on Thursday. Rantanen, who scored 31 goals and produced 87 points in 74 regular season games, participated in Avalanche practice on Monday but was wearing a no-contact jersey.

When submitting content, please abide by our submission guidelines, and avoid posting profanity, personal attacks or harassment. Should you violate our submissions guidelines, we reserve the right to remove your comments and block your account. Sportsnet reserves the right to close a story’s comment section at any time.