Time to give Avalanche credit for meaningful run over Flames

Eric Francis and Dan Murphy discuss Calgary’s heartbreaking overtime losses.

CALGARY – Now might be a good time to stop focusing on what the Calgary Flames aren’t doing, and give credit to a Colorado Avalanche team doing so many things right.

This Colorado club is for real, and will be for many years to come, given its reasonably priced core and bevy of top draft picks this summer.

Their window to contend is clearly opening up, much like the Flames’ appeared to midway through this season. The Avs have lost just two games in regulation in their last 15 outings, riding a wave even the Columbus Blue Jackets should envy.

They’ve done so, at various times down the stretch, without the services of captain Gabriel Landeskog and the NHL’s leading scorer at Christmas, Mikko Rantanen.

So much for the notion depth would be an issue for the west’s eighth seed.

Make no mistake, they are a three-line team. But that’s been enough to disrupt the Flames’ attack, flipping a tight series on its head.

With their speed, the Avs have taken away Calgary’s principle generator of offence, which typically comes via the rush. Johnny Gaudreau, currently in a dead heat with Mike Smith for eighth in team scoring (one assist each), has been continually stymied upon entering Colorado’s zone. His struggles are well documented and clearly a big part of why the Flames return to Calgary down 3-1 in the series.

Simply put, the Avs stars have shone, and Calgary’s are still silent.

In Game 4, Calgary’s top line combined for seven shots, including Elias Lindholm’s game-opening goal and a pair of shots from Sean Monahan.

The Avs’ big three fired 20 at Smith, which included Rantanen’s late, game-tying goal and his subsequent overtime winner.

It’s all eerily reminiscent of the Flames’ playoff fate two years ago, when, it’s now generally agreed, the Flames could have won all four games against the Anaheim Ducks.

Instead, they were swept.

Granted, the goaltending of Brian Elliott back then was nowhere near the level of Smith’s of late, as the upstart Flames found ways to let it slip away every night. But other than the netminding, which has been the biggest revelation of all for the Flames this spring, this series has been similar in that the Flames could easily be up 3-1.

In two of their last three losses, they squandered leads in the final three minutes and lost in the coin-toss that is overtime.

One of the many shocking turnabouts for the Flames is the team’s inability to hold those late leads.

The Flames set a modern-day record with their third-period differential this year, making them the league’s most dangerous team as the clock ticked down. The margin for error clearly tightens in the playoffs and the difference between winning and losing is razor thin.

Discipline has been an issue, as has the Avs’ speed, which has led to several Flames infractions. This Flames team just doesn’t appear ready to win when it matters most. Yet.

They return home Friday night with the potential of losing their fourth-straight game, matching their season-high for consecutive losses.

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Perhaps it had plenty to do with the lack of meaningful games down the stretch.

As the Avs scratched and clawed for a playoff spot, the Flames’ focus was on rest and trying to help Gaudreau get 100 points.

Although Calgary beat Colorado in all three regular-season games this year, the difference was almost entirely goaltending. Philipp Grubauer had yet to emerge as Semyon Varlamov’s replacement, giving their club a backstop who has received very little of the credit he is due so far this spring.

Cale Makar’s dramatic arrival has given the club further juice in a building every bit as loud as the Saddledome was in Game 1.

Ian Cole and Erik Johnson have been a formidable shut-down pair, Tyson Barrie is as dangerous offensively as anyone in the series and J.T. Compher continues to impress.

But, again, no one has taken bigger strides in April than MacKinnon, who essentially took over the series with his overtime winner in Game 2 at the Dome. His delicious combination of size and speed gives him an explosiveness that fuels his scoring ability and playmaking prowess. Every time he crosses the opposing blue line imminent danger lurks for defenders.

The opposite is true for Gaudreau of late.

Again, the comparisons between the two 99-point stars are inevitable.

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Perhaps the most stark example of how much better MacKinnon is in these playoffs comes from the fact Avalanche coach Jared Bednar relished the chance to return to Colorado, where his line-matching would include putting his best against Calgary’s.

MacKinnon, Landeskog and Alex Kerfoot have significantly outplayed Monahan, Gaudreau and Lindholm, setting up a Game 5 the Flames must win to stave off pending embarrassment, dissection and criticism.

Posting more than 50 shots on the Flames in consecutive games shatters a season-long trend of seeing the Flames minimize shots while drastically outshooting most opponents.

The Flames’ resilience made for a tight, entertaining Game 4 and should still make them optimistic they can get the series back to Denver.

However, it’s to the point no one should be surprised if the run these Avs are on is extended another series.

They most certainly deserve it.

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