The Flames’ 2017-18 season ended unceremoniously because, in part, it seemed that every time the team encountered adversity, they’d immediately fold. In 2018-19, that aspect of their game appeared to be largely absent, but for a few moments at the start of the season – and for pretty much all five games of the playoffs.
There is, of course, still work to be done.
Feel of the game
The Flames were just never really in it. When the Avalanche were in the offensive zone, they attacked, they forced turnovers, they created legitimate scoring chances. The Flames did that on occasion as well, but for the most part, when they were in the offensive zone they were meek, they played a perimeter game, and they just did not threaten: the same as it was through most of the series, but especially during their four straight losses.
Not that Johnny Gaudreau wasn’t trying. The effort from him was obvious, Sam Bennett performing well as a complementary player, but there’s only so much one person can do. Springing Gaudreau on multiple breakaways was all well and good, and maybe could have changed the direction of the game – especially when the Avalanche’s second goal came right after Gaudreau missed his shot – but, for all his offensive skill, it isn’t exactly an area he thrives in.
Things were pretty far cemented as hopeless, though. Even when TJ Brodie, in the dying seconds of the first period, hauled ass and did a lot to create his own goal to make it a one-goal game, it didn’t necessarily feel like the Flames were going to come back. In theory, that would have been huge going into the locker room, but in practice, the Flames couldn’t do anything with it. They couldn’t score on an early second period powerplay, they couldn’t get it out of their own zone, the Avalanche made them pay for it again. Gaudreau’s goal was disallowed. The Avalanche scored again. It was over. They scored again to start the third period. It was really over.
There have been times – not as common this season as last, but still, times – in which the Flames have dominated a game early, not gotten a goal, and fallen behind. The Flames didn’t dominate, though they also maybe didn’t get that one bounce that would have gotten them on the board. And then they were scored against. And then they’d give up.
That was the series.
The good news
This was Gaudreau’s game. He was trying to score. If there’s one forward you’d want to have the game on his stick, it was him; he had it. The effort had mostly been there in previous games, as well – at least before things got so out of hand every skater just gave up – but he didn’t have the linemates to keep up with him, and so, chances died. Bennett helped rectify that somewhat. This game, though, was Gaudreau finding that little extra gear, still trying to do it all while everyone else he knew was struggling offensively, and just not being able to do it. But it was a really good effort – and that’s kind of the baseline for praise in this series. Have a really good effort.
Rasmus Andersson and Juuso Valimaki are going to make a great defence pairing. I’m still in awe of how much Andersson stepped up over the season. He’s already a leader on defence. He’s 22.
The Flames did not buy at the trade deadline (part of the reason why Valimaki should have several great seasons for them coming up). They did not go all in. This was not a wasted season. It was a disappointing one, yes – but, the assumption that age will actually catch up to Mark Giordano over a sustained period of time aside, the door is still wide open for the future.
The bad news
If I’m going to credit Gaudreau for trying to get something done but discredit his linemates for not playing on his level, then Sean Monahan has to go in this section. Bobbling a pass that turned into a good scoring chance (albeit not one from Gaudreau) aside, he just couldn’t keep up. He’s still obviously a good player, but he was so consistently behind the play all series long, and he just wasn’t helping. The Flames’ top players were all disappointments, really, but when he’s the one who’s been paired with Gaudreau for almost the entirety of their careers to date and he can’t keep up with him, well, it’s certainly not good.
Though, once again, aside from a few bright spots here and there, this was a team-wide failure, just as it was in all of their losses. This team was not prepared for the playoffs. Whether it was due to going cold at exactly the wrong time, a matter of buying into their own first seed hype and underestimating their opponent, or just genuinely not being good enough, they were not ready to play. After their Game 1 win, I held an assumption that they could have been better, but also that they would be: the top players didn’t necessarily do their jobs that game, but their defensive and depth guys did, and that early series lead would help them figure it out. From Game 2 onward, it was apparent that was not the case. They played poorly, consistently so, and that was the series.
Numbers of note
49.38% – The Flames’ 5v5 CF. The telling number is their 38.46% first period CF. They got off to a bad start, Mike Smith stopped being otherworldly, and that was really all it took to sink them.
5 – Elias Lindholm actually led the way for the Flames in shots, though Gaudreau followed up with four of his own. Monahan had, uh, one. So did Matthew Tkachuk. To round out the 70+ point players, Giordano had three.
5:00 – Austin Czarnik replaced James Neal in the lineup. He played five minutes. Neal, in the final game of his disappointing first season with the Flames, was healthy scratched for a guy who played five minutes. So that’s going to be looked at. He’s under contract for another four seasons to come.
9:33, 9:35 – Mark Jankowski and Michael Frolik’s ice times. Fair, since Derek Ryan has proved himself better than Jankowski over the course of the season. Frolik, on the other hand, rebounded from one of the worst seasons of his career to put up respectable numbers, all the while fighting with Bill Peters to stay out of the press box or get off of the fourth line. So… that never really ended.
20:29 – After Giordano and TJ Brodie, Andersson had the third highest ice time among all Flames defencemen. I’m so excited to see where his career goes from here.
The season was great; the postseason was a flop. There were a handful of bright, individual moments; they all meant nothing. The Flames are spared by the Lightning from having the most embarrassing flaring out of the playoffs, though, and they’re still a team on the upswing.
This was a pathetic showing, but it was far less pathetic than 2017-18. Progress is not always linear. They’ll be fine.