The Flames looked much better to start off Game 4. They took some very necessary steps forward. It was the kind of game you’d be happy with if they were tuning up for the playoffs, not fighting to avoid being one game away from getting eliminated.
Feel of the game
After the overall disaster that was Game 3, the bar was set pretty low for the Flames, but they were able to clear it early. No, they weren’t getting too much in the way of actual offensive chances of their own – occasionally thwarted by a missed pass or a stick just not being in the exact spot it needed to be, mostly thwarted by their own undoing as they played a perimeter game in the offensive zone – but they were also doing something very right: they were limiting what the Avalanche, and specifically Nathan MacKinnon, were able to do.
That’s where the positives end. It seems as though the Avs have gotten completely in the Flames’ heads: they were easily burned by them in Game 3, so they focused on shutting them down in Game 4. Unfortunately, while working to shut them down, they neglected to actually try to score themselves.
As the game went on, that structure loosened up, and everything devolved into chaos. Or, rather, chaos from the Flames’ point of view, because the Avalanche seemed to know what they were doing. They were consistently the more dangerous team, that earlier structure turning into “eh, Mike Smith will handle it,” with no real visible payoff for the Flames themselves.
Sure, the Flames led for most of the game, and even briefly had a two-goal lead in the third period, but right when that earlier defensive structure really would have helped them, they let the Avalanche dictate everything. That resulted in the game being tied with mere minutes to go and, just like in Game 2, set the Avalanche – the better team all night – up for the win.
The Flames aren’t dead yet, and they made real progression in this game. But after seeing how the first four have gone, expecting them to win three in a row might be a tall order. Sure, things would be different if they could have held on in Games 2 and 4, but the poor play would have still been there, and has been for most of these playoffs.
A number one seed shouldn’t be letting a number eight seed dictate the series to them, and yet here we are.
The good news
Smith. Doesn’t really need elaborating at this point. He’s the main reason they won Game 1 and is the main reason Games 2 and 4 were even winnable to begin with.
Rasmus Andersson and Juuso Valimaki. This was technically Andersson’s rookie season, but I honestly can’t remember the last time I thought of him as a rookie: he’s been poised for months on end and he was one of the few Flames actually consistently trying to create offence, whether it be through taking a lot of shots or even straight up driving to the net. As for Valimaki, he not only picked up his first career playoff point, but he stood out on a couple of defensive plays as well – all in his very first playoff game, after barely playing in the NHL since November. The Flames have a bright future on their backend with those two; it seems like a top pairing in the making.
As poorly as things have gone, it’s really cool to see all of these players who haven’t had a chance to do anything in the playoffs make the most of it. The two defencemen referenced above are two of them, as is fellow rookie Andrew Mangiapane. It was also nice to see Elias Lindholm get his first playoff goal (as disappointing as he’s been overall the past several games). But the real feel-good moment goes to Derek Ryan: he took the long road to get to the big league, he never had the chance to play in the playoffs before, and at 32 years young, he got his first playoff goal, too. He’s been a revelation since at least the second half of the season, and it was awesome to see him achieve that.
The bad news
Nathan MacKinnon is still the best player on the ice. That’s not necessarily a terrible thing in and of itself – some things just can’t be helped – but it would be nice if one of the experienced, talented Flames skaters (say, anyone who scored 70+ points in the season) could challenge him at some point.
I’m really loathe to put him here, because there was a lot of blame to go around – these are team-wide failures, it isn’t isolated moments costing the Flames their past three games, it’s 60+ minutes of just not being the better team – but Mikael Backlund had some rough sequences to end the game. The late penalty call (though Noah Hanifin could have joined him in really wearing the goat horns right after), being that close to scoring the overtime winner and just failing, and missing his man on the actual overtime winner. His line showed a lot of improvement from the previous game, too; things just deteriorated as the game went on. He’s still an important player for the Flames, which is what made the end of the game such a shame for him.
That said: in the regular season, the Flames were tied for the second most goals scored with 289. The instant analysis for this series was that the Flames’ scoring abilities would overwhelm the Avalanche and their main weakness would be in net. It’s been the opposite: their strength has been in net and their scoring has completely dried up. It’s not a case of Philipp Grubauer outplaying Smith, either; they just are not getting the chances. At all. The top line briefly had some life early in the game and it just went away. Nobody could make anything actually connect. The powerplay remains non-lethal. You’re not going to win if you can barely score.
So far, the only way the Flames have been able to win is if Smith gets a shutout. That’s a terrible strategy to take – especially when giving up 50+ shots to the other team in back-to-back games.
The officiating was better this time around – the refs actually let the teams play, for the most part – but what they chose to let go and what they chose to actually call was baffling. Oh well!
Numbers of note
40.65% – The Flames’ 5v5 CF on the night. It got progressively worse as the game went on, culminating in a particularly brutal 34.38% third period. They may have been the second best team on the ice, but they might have pulled off a win if they had played better to close out the game.
60%+ – Only two Flames players had high corsi ratings on the night: Valimaki and Andersson.
1+ – Seven players have gotten their first career playoff point(s) out of this series: Matthew Tkachuk, Andersson, Lindholm, Mangiapane, Ryan, Valimaki, and Hanifin.
1 – Johnny Gaudreau has all of one assist in this series. So that’s not great. There’s nobody else who can really fill that 99-point void. Players like that are really tough to find – so when they go cold in the all-or-nothing nature that is the playoffs, the entire team feels that.
0 – Six Flames still have yet to pick up a point this series: Oscar Fantenberg, Michael Frolik, Travis Hamonic, James Neal, Garnet Hathaway, and Mark Jankowski. Of the six, Frolik and Hathaway are probably the only ones who deserve at least a point at this stage. As a depth defenceman now unlikely to draw back in, Fantenberg gets a pass.
52 – The Flames followed up allowing the Avalanche 56 shots in Game 3 by letting them get 52 in Game 4. They are not in this series. At all.
7 – Andersson led the shot clock for the Flames with seven of his own; the next highest was three from Backlund, Lindholm, and Mark Giordano each. On the one hand: yay, Andersson is awesome! On the other hand: what the hell is this formerly high-scoring team doing with a rookie third pairing defenceman taking the offensive charge?
17 minutes – Valimaki and Andersson both got relatively limited minutes compared to the rest of the Flames defence, but they provided everything and more you could possibly want out of a bottom defence pairing. No guarantee they’d have played as well as they did if they’d gotten more minutes and tougher opponents (they were kept mostly away from MacKinnon), but it probably couldn’t have hurt to have given them a shot.
Welcome to the playoffs, in which the regular season doesn’t matter. Yes, the Flames are disappointing right now: they shouldn’t be on the verge of being eliminated in five games. But also, the NHL playoffs are the epitome of things just sometimes happening. No team is going to be a bigger disappointment than the Lightning were this year, but nobody’s going to say the Lightning were a bad team based on just four games, right?
It’s hard to win a championship: there’s a guarantee someone will do it every year, but it’s only ever going to be one team. A lot of things have to go right for that one team to do it.
Things aren’t going right for the Flames right now, and that’s largely their own doing. But don’t forget: they still have the foundations in place for a good future, and they didn’t go all in this year. The long-term should be fine, even if the short-term is frustrating.