After Game 1, the Flames had a number of notable standouts: an old goalie, a rookie, a shutdown centre and his trouble-making winger. Possibly shutdown centre aside – because we’ve seen him at this before – everyone is still, to an extent, kind of an unknown. You praise the first game, while wondering if they can bring it for the second. And that has to be the goal: there’s no time for resting on any laurels, they’ve got to bring it for the second.
That’s not to say Game 2 will fall on the shoulders of Mike Smith, Andrew Mangiapane, Mikael Backlund, and Matthew Tkachuk. To an extent it will, but the bigger picture dictates it will fall on the entire team: not just those who happened to have the most positive moments of the first game. But still: those players will have to continue being positive contributors anyway, and this is both old and new territory, depending on the player.
We’ve seen Backlund at this for literally years and years and years, and even if those years haven’t included too many playoff games, by now we know what he’s all about: he’ll put up a little over half a point-per-game over the course of the regular season, all the while taking on the other team’s top players – sometimes including the very best players in the world – and rendering them helpless and ineffective.
That’s why he was tasked with the Nathan MacKinnon assignment to begin with, as he was during the regular season. In Game 1, he showed it was the right move. In Game 2, he’ll likely do the same. Where it will get interesting is when the Avalanche have home ice advantage – but that doesn’t change the fact Backlund, in the past few seasons, has finally brought his name into the mainstream Selke conversation. He is, perhaps, the most reliable Flame – alongside Mark Giordano, of course. (It’s probably not a coincidence they’re the two longest-tenured.)
The questions surround the other three standouts, though, albeit to a degree. Tkachuk has never done this before. The Memorial Cup is not the NHL postseason. He had a good rookie season, but he seemed to disappear in the 2017 playoffs: we knew he was good, but he wasn’t there yet. He posted back-to-back near-50 point seasons in his first two years, he drew some of the most penalties in the NHL, he learned to rein himself in, and now we’ve got the player we know is going to get a massive raise soon (and also love, he’s both known and loved). His rookie year was great, but scoring 77 points in his third year was a whole new level.
Is Tkachuk a good player? Yes. Is he likely to be a good player for many years to come? Absolutely. Is it all really starting now? It is – and while there’s little doubt he’ll be able to repeat his Game 1 performance, he’s still got to do it. He will, but for now, we’re all still stuck at the one game, ready and waiting for more.
Less certain is Mangiapane, but then again, very little has actually been certain about him. For some reason, it took until the sixth round of his second year of draft eligibility for a team to take a chance on him. He rewarded the Flames with back-to-back solid AHL seasons, but there seemed to be something of a wall there, a possibility that Mangiapane would end up being one of those players who was too good for the AHL, but not good enough for the NHL. He had his problems getting a meaningful shot in the NHL, yes, but he wasn’t exactly doing a lot to force his way up the lineup, either.
Considering the risk that he might not pan out, with the bonus that he was still relatively young, had great numbers, and was one of the Flames’ top forward prospects, there might have been a chance he could have been traded for more experienced NHL help now. That’s pure speculation on my part, and definitely a thought I held prior to the trade deadline (you’ve got to give to get, after all, and the Flames have very little of value they could possibly be willing to give). However, Mangiapane seemed to turn that first corner once he scored his first NHL goal in January. Slowly but surely, he looked increasingly like he belonged in the NHL on a full-time basis, and this directly coincided with the Flames’ fourth line becoming one of their better ones. Though he didn’t get to play much in Game 1, the sheer smarts and skill on display with his goal were jaw-dropping, and hint at a brighter future to come. Unlike Tkachuk, though, he doesn’t have the resume to so handily suggest it will come – but for this year, at least, as long as the Flames have a player who can do that towards the bottom of their lineup, then the threat will be ever-present, and the team will stay deep. It’s exciting for the future – while we also consider that the future is a process, and if it happens, it will take time to get there. But it sure looks like that’s the path we’re on.
And then, the major outlier: the goalie. If a forward falls short of what he can do, another forward will pick up the slack. The same can be true of defencemen. But goalies are not afforded that luxury, and an entire series, an entire run, can come down to just how good or bad a goalie’s play is. Lest we forget the amazing March Brian Elliott had one year, and the April that got him run out of town right after: there are no guarantees, and this season, Smith has been great at keeping everyone on their toes.
One good game does not erase everything. Smith earned the absolute hell out of his Game 1 shutout, and if he can harness everything he did in the playoff opening and keep it going forward, considering the quality and depth of skaters he plays behind, then other teams could very well be completely screwed. But he also has an entire season’s worth of work in which he failed to ultimately hit the .900% mark, and time-wise, he isn’t that far removed from some devastating losses. Nothing as bad as we saw at the start of the season anymore, but it has continued to lurk there, a number of factors throwing caution at an otherwise feel-good narrative, chief of all his age and injury history. Not a single one of those concerns appeared to be a factor in Game 1, but then, he’s got to go out and prove they won’t be a factor for Game 2, either. And the games beyond that, of which there will hopefully be several. It’s up to him to erase all semblance of doubt – and as good a start this was, it was still just that: a start.
So four players had an absolutely astounding game that’s easy to praise them for, and they deserve every bit of it.
But it was also just one game. They’ve got to do it again.