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.
What do the Flames have to be concerned about when facing Colorado?
— Chase Dobson (@chase_dobson) April 7, 2019
Can we have a look at how the mackinnon line did when matched up against other top shutdown lines around the league? Who was/wasn’t able to slow them down?
— Timothy Smith (@TimoteoSmith) April 7, 2019
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|
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|
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.
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.
Who should seriously be the starting goalie for the playoffs. I still lean Rittich, by a lot
— z – Russo (@arusso_9) April 7, 2019
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:
- 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.
- How is Rittich supposed to get experience if he isn’t played? There’s no need for a self-defeating prophecy here.
Does Valimaki get any games in the playoffs?
— Khalid Keshavjee (@KMKeshavjee) April 7, 2019
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.
Who is going to do the hitting alla Ferland in this playoff?
— Brian Gieni (@briangieni) April 7, 2019
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.
Also who is going to fight 2 or 3 avs as England did ?
— Brian Gieni (@briangieni) April 7, 2019
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.
Who will rock the best postseason beard?
— Sebastian (@Despo_Hockey) April 7, 2019
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.