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FlamesNation Mailbag: Playoffs soon, preliminary previews vs. Avalanche now

The Flames having such a good regular season has almost been something of a fever dream. Sure, tracking their progress through the year was a given, and knowing they had to win the West to get a theoretically easier first round matchup was a concern. But now it’s actually almost here it’s all settling in. This team really did win the West. They really are going to face the Avalanche in the first round. They really might hopefully, you know, win.

Just a couple of days to go. Let’s go through the questions.

So one thing the Flames really have to be concerned about is the Avalanche’s top line. Only three teams in the Western Conference had at least three players score 75 points over the course of the regular season: the Flames (four), the Blackhawks (three), and the Avalanche (three).

Chicago is, of course, completely irrelevant. That puts the remaining two top-heavy Western teams against each other in round one. Nathan MacKinnon, Mikko Rantanen, and Gabriel Landeskog combined for 261 points, so make no mistake: they are a threat. (For comparison, Johnny Gaudreau, Sean Monahan, and Elias Lindholm combined for 259 points, so this is a real battle of the high-scoring top lines.) Even though the Flames have the superior depth – the Avs don’t have a Matthew Tkachuk, and Tyson Barrie doesn’t compare to Mark Giordano (few do) – that doesn’t mean they can discount the other team’s top scorers.

Especially when we consider that the Avs had a 22.0% powerplay, compared to the Flames’ 19.3% – and that Colorado’s top scorers were more productive on the man advantage.

Flame PP Points Av PP Points
Gaudreau 27 MacKinnon 37
Lindholm 26 Rantanen 33
Monahan 23 Landeskog 27

Staying out of the box will probably be an area of focus for the Flames; no need to make Colorado’s top scorers’ jobs any easier for them. The good news is the Avs take more penalties, on average, than the Flames do: they clocked in at 9:24 penalty minutes per game through the regular season, while the Flames were at 8:28.

As for matchups against MacKinnon’s line, it’s imperfect, but here’s a look at the opposing centres MacKinnon faced off against the most at 5v5, via Natural Stat Trick.

Opponent TOI with CF% with MacKinnon CF% away
Mark Scheifele 45:55 54.00 53.85
Ryan O’Reilly 39:58 47.30 52.50
Jonathan Toews 35:16 44.44 48.54
Jason Dickinson 30:34 56.92 59.55
Bo Horvat 29:28 61.90 60.42
Colton Scissons 28:37 54.24 37.88
Mikael Backlund 26:43 46.15 49.12
Ryan Kesler 25:15 74.00 54.55
Brad Richardson 24:31 35.71 46.94
Sidney Crosby 23:45 48.89 59.09
Connor McDavid 23:13 65.31 52.63

Small sample sizes abound, but it’s clear that MacKinnon is not infallible: some opponents he can destroy, but others will take away his effectiveness. Fortunately for the Flames, Backlund is one of the players who has hurt MacKinnon when on the ice. Considering how the Flames have home ice advantage this series we can probably look for the Backlund-MacKinnon matchup – which would free up the Monahan line to do, well, whatever they wanted, probably. Or, the way things have been going lately, the Derek Ryan line.

As for the other thing the Flames need to worry about in regards to the Avalanche: goaltending. The Avs have the best goalie in the series in Philipp Grubauer.

Flame SV% EVSV% Av SV% EVSV%
Rittich .911 .923 Grubauer .917 .926
Smith .898 .907 Varlamov .909 .916

It’s the playoffs. Goaltending can make or break an entire series. If Grubauer is on his game and whichever goalie the Flames go with isn’t, then that could be the end of the Flames’ season right there.

I’m with you on this: it should be David Rittich. He wrestled the starting job away from Mike Smith, played more than Smith throughout the year, and had the better numbers, full stop. Smith got over that phase in November in which he was playing so poorly he was near singlehandedly costing the team games, but Rittich has had the better, more consistent year, and he gives the Flames the best chance to win. Even ignoring the numbers and just going by the eye test, Rittich looks steadier to me: less flailing, not too deep in his own net, better puck tracking and just less overall chaos in general.

Even ignoring that, Smith is 37 and very likely on his last NHL legs. Rittich is 26 and just getting started. Maybe Rittich is the long-term solution for the Flames, maybe he isn’t, but we know for a fact Smith is not: he’s too old to be. Yes, the Flames are chasing the Cup this year, but in all likelihood they’ll be chasing it next year as well, and the team has to know what they have in Rittich when determining who’s going to play between the pipes for 2019-20. Rittich makes more sense for both the present and the future.

I also hate the “Smith has more experience” angle that’s been trotted around a bit because:

  1. It’s been seven years since Smith played in the playoffs. Surely something has changed in those seven years. He isn’t 30 years old anymore and the league is ever-changing. Smith having a good run seven years ago hardly means he’ll have a good run this year.
  2. How is Rittich supposed to get experience if he isn’t played? There’s no need for a self-defeating prophecy here.

I think so. I don’t think it’ll be any time soon – Oscar Fantenberg has done a good job securing that sixth defenceman spot, and Juuso Valimaki hasn’t seen much NHL action in recent months at all – but he’s talented and the organization is high on him. If someone gets hurt, he’s probably the first one in. Even if someone doesn’t get hurt, it’s totally within reason the Flames have enough faith in his abilities that they think they have a better chance with him in the lineup.

Garnet Hathaway led the way for the Flames in the regular season with 2.6 hits per game, so I’d guess him. He isn’t as offensively talented as Micheal Ferland, but his linemates in Ryan and Andrew Mangiapane are, so he might be able to continue to clear some space for them. Sam Bennett was the next most physical regular with 1.5 hits per game, but his status is in question; if he’s good to go, though, then I’d expect that edge to be present. After him it’s Matthew Tkachuk and Fantenberg with 1.3 hits per game each.

Hitting isn’t a big part of the Flames’ game, though, and this looks like a power vs. power matchup. If the Flames can beat the Avalanche with speed – think of the way the Lightning dismantled them in their second regular season meeting back in February – then having a hitting group may not be all that necessary. At least not for round one.

I don’t think the intense rivalry is there between the Flames and Avalanche as it was between the Flames and Canucks, but it’s gotta be Bennett, right? He’s a monster. My dark horse candidate is Travis Hamonic. And I’m sure if Smith wants to get in a brawl he’ll find a way.

Gaudreau, duh.

But really: I’m expecting big things out of Mark Giordano’s beard. He can already grow a pretty good one normally and he’s gotten absolutely nothing in the way of a meaningful playoff appearance. That thing’s gotta be itching to get out there and make itself known, and it will be glorious.

  • Skylardog

    Really not sure Rantenen is going to play. He is listed as day to day with an undisclosed injury, but the info on his injury suggests it may be playoff posturing saying he may be available.

    We picked the rosters in the Flames Nation draft playoff draft pool last night, and the number 12 player in the NHL in terms of PPG went undrafted.

    Given that our Flames play the Avs, perhaps that should not have been unexpected, but someone took MacKinnon, Landeskog, and Barrie. I think we all know who that was.

    That person will straighten the record on how that happened…

  • Skylardog

    Ritter please
    For all of the reasons listed above. The “we need to know” for next season is really the biggest reason of them all, otherwise we could be in the summer looking at a “what the heck is BT doing about the goaltending” thing.

    This position is the biggest question mark we have as far as a playoff window.

    • withachance

      I think it will be a similar situation to MAF and Murray. MAF started but Murray took over pretty quickly. I think Smith probably gets game 1 but Ritter comes in after a big mistake

  • Skylardog

    Matchups are so much a part of this and I know Peters will be all over getting the best matchup. Sure separates his coaching from that of GG who really seemed oblivious to any matching scenarios.

    While the Backs line has been great, the same cannot be said for the Mackinnon line against the Monahan line. Backs is 3-0 in terms of GF, Monahan is 0-3.

    But both guys got schooled in terms of shots, with Mac getting a 65% SF% against both.
    Backs and Monahan also got bettered by Mac in scoring chances.

    But Monahan was better at generating HDCF while Backs line did not do as well.

    The problem was save percentage. When Monahan was out, it was only 0.842 versus a 1.000 when Backs was out.

    Again, in a track meet, can Ritter and Smith do the job? This is going to be the question. (and scoring depth which we have).

    Should be fun to watch, and I see absolutely no need for a back on my chair.

    • His Dudeness

      This is to be expected. Mackinnion is probably the second best player in the West if not the league right now. I would still take Crosby in a 7 game series over McYoYo or Mackinnion but man is he explosive. Mackinnion has it all, he can skate, pass and shoot. He has high hockey IQ and his give a frack meter is off the charts (remember him losing his marbles on the bench the last game we played). The avs are going to be a really good team for a long time and we need to spank them this year!

    • cjc

      At least Calgary has won more track meets than they’ve lost this year?

      I think the key for road games is to split abilities a bit more. Keep 3M on the MacKinnon line at home, but mix the lines up a bit on the road so Purple Rain isn’t so exposed.

  • CalgaryBornandRaised

    Avs are a one line team, their depth is pretty suspect

    Feel way more confident that our depth guys can out gun the likes of Nieto, Calvert and Colin Wilson (he’s still playing?!?)

    While i would prefer Rittich, I’ve learned that the brass loves Smitty playing the puck behind the net to save the defensemen and Rittich isn’t quite there yet (see goal to Brent Burns in last meeting with the Sharks in Calgary) but he will get there

    Going to Game 1 on Thurs……..Friday is already going to be a writeoff, GFG!!!

    • HAL MacInnis

      No doubt! In fact, I had a theory about when Calgary faltered a bit in the new year and I believe it was when Sam shaved the ‘stache.

      There’s a funny story in an old book about a man named Samson. He was incredibly strong and the source of his power was in his hair. Later, he divulged this secret to a little hussy named Delilah. The next morning, he awoke with his hair cut off and his mighty strength evaporated.

      There are just too many correlations between our Sam and this Samson fellow, let alone his namesake. Sam’s power in in his moustache. To put it simply, our cup run lies in Sam’s glorious upper lip.

      • His Dudeness

        He can either struggle along in pain and play out his contract as a shell of his former self or retire and get the hip replacement. I’m not wishing pain on him the rest of his life. Just don’t feel bad for a guy who dives, spears other men in the groin, or bangs his teammates SO.

  • Phockey

    Somewhat unrelated to this article… isn’t it great we aren’t upset at this time of the year that another good coach got away with Quennville going to check out all that gorgeous sn@$21 down in FLA

  • oddclod

    It’s uncanny how far this writer has gone to trash Smittt. Now to the extent of Ageism. He can’t because he’s old. That’s literally a known form of discrimination. Something we’re trying to stamp out in this world. If I were a teammate reading this trash I’d ask the Flames PR department to have a word with FN for this bigotry. The realm of possibility of a first placed team to get past the first round is not a stretch, and if you can’t begin to imagine how an older young adult can make it out of the first round, look no further than another career Team Canada member who went to the finals at 40yrs old. Keepers have a longer shelf life because it’s a mental game. And you should be so wise as to research it as a writer covering the home team with an aging tender as opposed to this bigoted nose in the air fan article trying to pass as a mail bag. Echo chamber more like it.

    • His Dudeness

      What? Can’t talk about a players age anymore? Calm down snowflake. Professional sports is full of discrimination and pay discrepancies. Should Hath make the same as Gaudreau since we are trying to “stamp out” un equal pay “in this world?

      • oddclod

        Nice self pronounced profile to support the echo chamber in times of need.

        Your argument that I’m somehow a proponent for equality of outcome, over equality of opportunity is your own creation to support this echo chamber. A team that’s 1st in the west and the lead up is a rant on the goalie tandem that got us here. Sounds great.

        Rittich is 27-9-0, .911 and one of the feel good stories of the year. Write about that. Write about how qualified he is, compare the records of the two. It’s intellectually lazy and unprofessional to just act like it’s and obvious decision (when it’s not) and go the route of well he’s old, and make that your soap box. That’s Disrespectful.

        I hope someone on the team reads this, and gives Smitty that extra love tap if he get’s the nod because it’s about the team, and he’s part of it. Last year Smitty carries Ritter for a stretch and Ritter couldn’t hold the fort when it was his turn. It’s a team, Smitty’s on it, and he’s a veteran of influence. I’m ready to cheer like there’s no tomorrow without the slightest hint of dissention because my pick for the starter (namely Rittich) is sitting this one out. I have faith that he’ll be there to give it his all, and hopefully fired up in the zone to deliver the stops. “Full Stop.”

        GFG

      • Ludis Fanaticus

        Very occasionally a goaltender comes into the playoffs without any prior experience and sets the hockey world on its ear.
        There have been 4 rookie goaltenders that won a Stanley Cup – and, I argue, for playoff purposes, Rittich is close to a rookie.

        The new pressure of the playoffs will impact goaltenders new to the playoffs, differently than in the regular season
        ; yes that’s a truism. More often that not, goaltenders struggle under the narrowing focus of the playoff spotlight.
        We don’t know what the impact will be on Rittich. He didn’t do well the first time he was handed the started goaltender mantel (last year). Should we expect him to deal with the new pressure differently? Should he have to?

        I choose experience.
        We can always make a change if we must; but it’s the right place to start.
        The net is yours Mr. Smith.

    • SGRietzey

      Ari stated Smith is not the long-term solution for the Flames in goal. That isn’t discrimination, it is literally true. You are delusional if you believe otherwise; Father Time has never lost. No smart GM or team would chain their long-term goaltending plans to a 37 year old who not only put up a sub-0.900 save percentage this season, but was one of the worst goalies in the league statistically since March of last year. A strong mental game only goes so far if you can’t make the saves consistently.

      Yes, some goalies CAN perform at a high level at that age, but the ones playing well consistently into their late 30s? Relatively few (worth a look, for reference: https://www.quanthockey.com/nhl/player-age/37-year-old-nhl-goalies.html)
      Brodeur playing in the Finals at 40 is an anomaly, not the standard – and not to diminish the man’s accomplishments, but it also glosses over that Brodeur’s performance after age 37 sharply declined, and when it got to that point that he clearly wasn’t there anymore, the Devils ensured they had a contingency plan in place in Schneider. Smith’s decline already started last season and it’s not yet clear if Rittich is the answer long-term. It’s not discrimination to point out that he doesn’t appear to be capable of being a quality starter in the league anymore and that the Flames should be evaluating alternatives for next season and beyond.

      • oddclod

        Professionalism in journalism skips the ageism trash and get’s to the facts. I see she’s attempted to make a her point he’s not part of the long term future. What you don’t see is that it’s irrelevant because we’re talking about NOW. We have two capable goaltenders, but both scenarios are not optimal. Hence the debate. One is not his former self yet not completely withered, while the other is Green to the deep end of the toughest tournament on earth. Amidst the circumstances it might be wise to let Ritter wade in from the bench instead of getting overcome by nerves when he feels his netspace divided in half. Of course that wouldn’t occur to the writer who manufactured another hit piece. She’s been called out by more than one of being a tad soap boxy, over Smith so it’s not without precedent.

        And you’re right Brodeur was an anomaly at 40. and they all decline by 37. But smitty ain’t 40, and he’s pieced together some admirable play to make this a conversation. Another point. It’s not cut and dry. High pedigree goalies CAN perform at a high level into a later age that’s right, that’s why they actually get signed. We’re talking about pedigree here, not the mean of the straddlers.

        Is Smitty resigning next year? Probably not. Does he deserve the asinine write ups from the same writer over and over especially after shaping things up and being part of a first place team? Probably not.

  • Skylardog

    It is interesting that their are some round one series in the East that on paper look like locks for certain teams. You have to like Tampa and Boston to win at almost 100% certainty, and I believe that while Carolina has been great down the stretch, Washington seems to have their number. Pitt and NYI is a 7 game tossup.

    But in the West, the battles appear to be fierce. Winnipeg and StL look like a dog fight with StL one of the very best since the New Year, and the Jets struggling, but they just got some key guys back. Nash should have an edge, but by no means will it be a walk. Vegas and SJ will be a dog fight. I would give the edge to SJ except that they have been absolute trash for the last 3 weeks or so. Vegas by a hair? They will beat the crap out of each other!

    Which leaves us with Colorado. That should be a good matchup for us. But the hottest team in the NHL coming in is the Avs, 7-1-2 in the last 10, but the loss was in the last game and they knew they were in, they were 8-0-2 before that last game. I would have put us as a 100% chance of advancing in this matchup 3 weeks ago, but with our top line struggling and the Avs on a roll, I have a slight concern. Beating them 3 times out of 3 does help the uneasiness.

    Flames in 6.

  • Intercourse the Penguins

    Both goalies will play but Smith will start and get most games. AS for you Smith haters Mark Giordano “couldn’t disagree more.” A 4 to 7 game series is taxing on D-men especially and Smitty saves wear and tear on them. Yes, he will cough up pucks but so will every other Flame. It is not “the brass” that favors MS so much as his team mates love him. GFG!

    • oddclod

      well said. You would think that others would talk about the intangibles of Smith which are obvious. I don’t know if he’ll hold the starting job, but he is capable, and if he catches fire it’s just the tonic required for the critics to learn a lesson. Never count an under 40 Team Canada veteran out of the picture. If Smith he under strong teams like Brodeur, Roy, and Belfour were he’d literally be a god. Somehow he get’s the once over from the nihilists who value their opinions over discussing things respectfully to a Calgary Flame that clearly deserves it. Meh. Fanatics. Like Drake lovers. Out of touch.

      • You are such a snowflake. Are you Smith’s agent or brother? Btw, who on here has said they WANT Smith to fail? Looking at stats and history is a way to engage in a conversation on the team we all like to cheer for. You seem to want to ignore stats and say that because Smith has done well in the past in certain situations (years ago), we should ignore anything recent. If Smith starts I hope he stays as it will mean he is playing well and thus the team is doing well. Personally I am 50/50 on who should start. That has more to do with Smith’s RECENT play and not because he played for Team Canada Olympic team 5 years ago (played one game as a backup 3rd string on a stacked Canada team).

        • oddclod

          I played the game up to AAA ranchlands (allan cup circuit) before realizing my dream was done. I’ve rode flank with should have been NHLers that could regularly pot shelfies from the blue line and rode the pine for playing inside my ego. I’ve beat men senseless that were bigger than I, and have been stung humbled by spark plugs half my weight.

          I like FN cause most of the nerds here are cooler than I think I am and pay them their due when deserved. If you don’t like that my opinion is that Smitty gets a bad shake, then that’s how you feel. A third string keeper on Team Canada. If that’s the type of pedigree worth taking the time to diminish, I’m sorry. I hate to be the one to tell ya. I ain’t the snowflake. Look in the mirror.

          • Seems like every post you make is about pumping your own tires and smacking someone else down for having a different opinion. This one is no different. Congrats on AAA. Nerds? Is there a Don Cherry forum that you can go to that isn’t so cerebral for you? Btw I love DC but you get my point I assume.

  • oilcanboyd

    Good news! Benny is back!
    Jermain Franklin
    @TSNJFranklin
    2h

    #Flames

    today
    Gaudreau-Monahan-Lindholm
    Tkachuk-Backlund-Frolik
    Bennett-Jankowski-Neal
    Mangiapane-Ryan-Hathaway

    Czarnik, Dube, Quine

    Giordano-Brodie
    Hanifin-Hamonic
    Fantenberg-Andersson

    Prout, Valimaki, Stone, Kylington

    Smith
    Rittich

  • The Beej

    I wonder if now following some different line combos the last couple of months Peters will switch things up on the road ro balance the lines.

    Our default line up is ideal for home games as it allows us to match up accordingly. Monahan is great but he isnt Toews Crosby or Kopitar. The first line can be exposed defensively so on home ice they really need to take advantage of that last change.

    But on the road if we cant consistently match the 3M against the Mackinnon line and our 1st and 3rd line are exposed then it might make sense to balance the lines. Lots you could do from little tweaks to major shuffling. Lindholm could move to center Here are a couple options:

    Gaudreau Ryan Lindholm
    Tkachuk Monahan Frolik
    Bennett Backlund Neal

    Gaudreau Monahan Frolik
    Tkachuk Lindholm Neal
    Bennett Backlund Ryan

    Obviously some weird combos are possible and these combos are just examples. Could be a chemistry disaster to do something like this but the point is to play it safe. Ensure you have one or two defensively capable forwards on at all times.

  • Franko J

    Cliché, Cliché.
    Whichever goaltender plays better will win the series. I just have visions of Smith doing a Elliott. Hopefully I’m very wrong.

    This should be a great series of fast paced hockey. GFG!!!
    The Flames and Avalanche have never played a series in the Stanley cup playoffs and I cannot wait until Thursday. Far better feeling than last year at this time.