The last time the Flames were in the playoffs, absolutely nothing went in their favour. This time, everything did – but it helps that the team itself is really quite good, too, and did everything it could to fully earn that win.
Feel of the game
This is almost certainly true of most sports cities, and Calgary isn’t special in this regard, but: is this not a city built for the playoffs? The building was loud. It was aggressively red. Chants rang clear and true the entire game, and the atmosphere was near-tangible – even through a screen. It hasn’t been that long since the Flames were in the postseason, but it’s been an incredibly long time since they’ve made it and had a shot at actually accomplishing something. This year, there are expectations. This year, the team can actually meet them.
But it wasn’t a particularly dramatic start to the game. Though the Flames were the better team, the Avalanche looked plenty dangerous at times too – especially when they got a powerplay, something the Flames granted them three in a row of: two in the first period, and one at the very start of the second.
They survived them. The Flames dusted themselves off after their infractions and kept the puck going, keeping the Avalanche from doing too much with it – though they had their own troubles in getting something meaningful going in the offensive zone as well. At least, until Andrew Mangiapane out-waited Philipp Grubauer, and until Matthew Tkachuk did what he does best as a net-front presence on the powerplay, and suddenly, the Flames had a multi-goal lead – and the way Mike Smith had been playing, that seemed like it would be enough.
It was, but it’s the playoffs, and you never know what’s going to happen or how things are going to go horribly wrong at a moment’s notice. But the Flames held on, Smith continued to thwart the Avalanche, the Flames added two goals late in the game, and that really was it. The late-game shenanigans meant absolutely nothing: from top to bottom, it was clear the Flames were the better team.
The good news
That was Smith’s best game of the season, and it isn’t even close. He had a horrendous start to the year. It continued. Occasionally, he’d deliver gems, but there was always something else to them: that his teammates had done a good job limiting high-danger chances against him, that he was playing a weaker opponent, that something just looked off. There was absolutely none of that for Game 1: it’s the playoffs and he had to stare down Nathan MacKinnon and a dangerous powerplay over and over and over again. His reflexes and reaction time were there. When he lost the puck, he found it again. There were no awkward movements, there were no questionable decisions, there was no floundering or flailing or “what are you doing get back in your net” – Smith just played a smart, clean game featuring a dramatic glove hand, and the only moments of anxiety came from when the puck suddenly trickled out into the open at a pace that not even the Avalanche could process. There’s a meme that James Neal had a bad regular season because he was saving it for the playoffs; what if that’s actually what happens with Smith? He hasn’t looked that good in a long time. If he can keep it up… Also his retro gear looks so good.
Mikael Backlund’s line is getting tasked with a big assignment in shutting down MacKinnon’s, and they passed Game 1 with flying colours. Not only did they play a part in not letting the Avalanche’s top players score, but they got plenty of chances themselves (even if they could only capitalize on the man advantage or with an empty net). The 3M line has picked up right where it left off from the regular season: being one of the Flames’ best lines at both ends of the ice.
The Flames are deeper than the Avalanche, and there’s really no better way to prove it than by Mangiapane opening the scoring with an absolutely gorgeous goal. Most probably wouldn’t have him pegged for the Flames’ first goal of the playoffs, but it was wholly earned. It was as though it was happening in slow motion, but you just knew it was going to go in: there was no way he wasn’t going to tuck it in, even as he was falling to the ice. Grubauer wasn’t going to be able to get a handle on it. And though that’s the moment that counted, the fourth line – the DAG line – whatever line they are – created other chances, too. They’re their own force to be reckoned with. It’s been this way for a while now.
The bad news
Penalties: please stop taking them. Though it didn’t come back to bite the Flames in this game, that’s not a guarantee for future games at all. The Avalanche have top tier weapons of their own, and had their fair share of moments looking dangerous. Smith isn’t going to get another three straight shutouts (probably); at some point, the Avalanche are going to score. Why make it easier for them? The Flames won the special teams battle, but it doesn’t take too much to see it going the other way.
While the second and fourth lines continued their stellar play from the end of the season, the top line unfortunately seemed to follow suit with its own recent play, as well. They had their moments – and Johnny Gaudreau was dangerous enough to draw multiple penalties – but the threat didn’t seem to be there like we know it can be.
Numbers of note
51.69% – The Flames’ 5v5 CF. Their shining moment was a 62.96% second period – the very frame that saw them pull away with a two-goal lead and never really look back. They had things under control after that.
7 – Backlund led the way with seven shots, the most on the team.
45.16% – MacKinnon’s 5v5 corsi in the 14:06 he had to play against Backlund. He was a 66.67% in the three minutes he got away from him. Line matching: it works. Backlund: he’s going to be very valuable these playoffs.
23:22 – Backlund’s ice time, including almost three and a half minutes of special teams time. He was by far the most-played forward; only Mark Giordano (26:02) and TJ Brodie (23:27) had more ice time than he did.
15:00 – Gaudreau’s ice time, which is a pretty sharp step down from his usual affair – he’s only played fewer than 16 minutes four times this season. When he last played in the playoffs in 2017, he hovered around 20 minutes a game. Both the penalty kill and line matching were likely factors: his line still got the second most ice time out of the forward group, and MacKinnon played 25 minutes (17 at 5v5).
7:47 – Mangiapane played the least out of all the Flames (again, probably in part due to special teams). Still, when you consider just how important he was and how good he can apparently be, that’s a bit surprising.
5:55 – Travis Hamonic led everybody in penalty kill ice time, with Giordano right behind him at 5:43. Please direct praise towards them.
100% – Good game, Smith.
The Flames played Game 1 like they’d played their first 79 games of the year. There wasn’t anything inherently special: it’s just what they’ve been doing since October. And what they’ve been doing since October got them 50 wins, so, of course, playing the exact same way brought them up to 51.
They’re a good team, and their greatest weakness showed up in a huge way for them. It’s still not quite apparent how high their ceiling actually is.