Colorado Avalanche (4) at Calgary Flames (1)
Regular Season Record: Colorado 38-30-14 (90 points) Calgary 50-25-7 (107 points)
Head to Head Record: Colorado 0 Wins Calgary 3 Wins Average score Colorado 3.33 - Calgary 4.67
The Calgary Flames and Colorado Avalanche form an unlikely pairing of squads in the first round of the playoffs. The Flames were not the trendy pick to win the Western Conference title in the preseason, typically slotted behind Vegas and San Jose. The Avalanche secured the lowest point total of 16 playoff teams tallying 90 points on the year, including 14 losses in overtime. The series contains a certain appeal, because many of us in our mid-40’s grew up on the two teams competing in playoff hockey. The Flames spent the 80’s playing second fiddle to the Wayne Gretzky captained Edmonton Oilers. The Avalanche spent my college years in a struggle to the death against the Detroit Red Wings for the Stanley Cup in the 90’s (seriously, type Avalanche Red Wings brawl into google). The explosive Flames offense matches up favorably against a talented, but overmatched squad in Colorado.
The Pacific Division winner met their Central Division foe three times on the ice this season, with Calgary securing a sweep. The two battles hosted by the Flames in the Scotiabank Saddledome featured the goal scoring ability of Calgary as they knocked the puck home 11 times. The Mile-High City did not provide an advantage to the Avs as Calgary edged Colorado in a close game decided in overtime. The goalie selection by Colorado coach, Jared Bednar, is of interest as Semyon Varlamov was the losing goalie in all three matches.
The Calgary Flames rode their offensive prowess to the number 1 seed in the Western Conference playoffs in 2019. Most teams are happy with one 30 goal, 40 assists performances from their top players on the frontline, but the Flames feature three. Johnny Gaudreau is formidable, leading the squad with 36 goals and 63 assists, narrowly missing a 100 point season. His fellow winger on the left side Matthew Tkachuk was not far behind as he enjoyed the red lamp going off 34 times this season. The Flames offense does not stop there- Elias Lindholm (27), Sean Monahan (34) and Mikael Backlund (21) all achieved success on the year. The powerful Flames attack led the NHL in high danger goals with 172 in 82 games.
The Avalanche are not slouches on the offensive end, notching the tenth highest number of goals during the 2018-19 season. The most dynamic offensive player for the Avs is center, Nathan MacKinnon. MacKinnon led Colorado in goals and assists, and like Gaudreau, found himself one point short of the century mark for the year. Mikko Rantanen and Gabriel Landeskog are more than enough support to keep Colorado in the game MacKinnon is having an off night. This duo at Right and Left Wing respectively slotted over 60 combined goals for the club. The snipers from Colorado displayed pinpoint accuracy as they ran about 50% higher than the league average on goals from distance.
Mark Giordano leads a solid Calgary backline into their fray against Colorado. Giordano is putting up a Norris Trophy caliber season contributing 10 goals and 30 assists. Gio is accompanied by Noah Hanifin in the defensive zone. Hanifin, responsible for 21 assists, provides a physical presence for the Flames with 70 hits on opponents. Travis Hamonic led the team in the painful category of blocked shots with 120. TJ Brodie and Rasmus Anderson round out a solid set of defenders finishing tied for 5th in High Danger Goals Allowed this season.
Colorado is only slightly behind Calgary in HDGA and in the top 10 on the year. Nikita Zadorov is counted on to do the dirty work, leading the team with over 200 hits and 27 penalties this campaign. Tyson Barrie fired off 11 goals from his position and managed 19 assists. Ian Cole and Samuel Girard have no issue stopping a puck with their bodies, look to them to sacrifice their frame against a high velocity Flames offense.
Calgary relies on offense as they retain the second worst goaltending tandem entering the playoffs. The goalies evenly rotated as starters during the season with David Rittich getting a handful more starting nods than Mike Smith. Rittich proved to effective up close, but his low danger save percentage of 95.6% is in the bottom of the NHL. Based on this, Rittich may have a more difficult time against a team that puts the puck in the back of the net from distance, like Colorado. Mike Smith does not provide a reliable answer between the pipes for the Flames. Smith did not just struggle against low danger shots but owns a negative GSAA from all distances. The difficulties of the netminders stopping shots adds pressure on the goal scorers up front.
Varlamov or nominal backup Phillipp Grubauer excelled manning the net this season. Opposing teams have not been able to score against either goaltender frequently, each blocking 92% of the pucks fired their way. Varlamov, the Russian starter in the 2014 Sochi Olympics, played in 49 games this season and sports a 2.48 goals against average on the year. He possesses a slightly negative GSAA at -1.09 but factoring more in the decision of who plays is his performance against Calgary. Varlamov only saved 15% of the pucks sent his way in the three games against Calgary. Grubauer played on the Stanley Cup winning Washington Capitals last season before moving to Denver. Grubauer got hot at the end of the season, but was replaced by Braden Holtby after Game 2 in a series against Columbus. History could repeat itself here, if the German starts the series against Calgary, but proves to be leaky. Grubauer played slightly better than Varlamov on a statistics basis and started 37 games so this is not out of the realm of the possible. If he is given first shot in the net against Calgary, he could be pulled quickly if not up to the task.
Calgary is a superior team when matched against Colorado and proved it on ice already this season. I do not believe anything changes during the playoffs. The Flames enjoy a high-octane offense that can easily outscore the Avalanche. Calgary has been the best team in the Western Conference this year and will overcome its goaltending woes in this series. The firepower from the Flames is too much for Colorado and Calgary advances in 5 games.
Current Line as of 4/7: