Of the eight NHL Western Conference playoff teams, Colorado is the best first round match-up for the Flames. Ironically, the Flames are the best opening round foe for the Avalanche. On Thursday in the Scotiabank Saddledome, they face each other in the first game of a best-of-7 series to see which team advances to the second round.
There are numerous similarities. Neither team has an abundance of players with Stanley Cup playoff experience. Each team’s number one-line ranks among the top units in the NHL. Both squads are fast, but neither plays a heavy physical game. Both feature one high-scoring defenceman.
Alternating two goaltenders have been a feature for both clubs all through the regular-season. Where the Flames have the upper hand is that they were consistent winners all winter finishing with 17 more points than the Avs. The Flames have more scoring depth among the forwards and a deeper defence group. That’s perhaps the reason the Flames won all three games they played against the Avs this season and winners of eight of nine going back three campaigns.
That’s how the teams stack up historically and on paper. It’s on the ice where the winner will be determined over the next two weeks. For the first half of the season, the Flames and Avalanche were pretty much on even keel separated by just 3 points at Christmas. It was after Christmas that Colorado’s play fell off dramatically before coming on strong again from mid-February to the end gaining the West’s last playoff position. They achieved that playing the final 14 games without at least one of their top three forwards.
First, captain Gabriel Landeskog went down with injury and then Mikko Rantanen. Landeskog and Rantanen along with Nathan MacKinnon combined for 261 points, a huge portion of Colorado’s scoring. The Flames top threesome – Johnny Gaudreau, Sean Monahan, and Elias Lindholm – combined for 258 points. The Flames second, third and fourth lines contributed much more than the Avs bottom end.
Mark Giordano gives Calgary the superior defenceman. He finished with 15 more points than Colorado ace Tyson Barry plus Giordano is much better defensively. The Flames blueline support-cast is also deeper. The reason the Flames had the NHL’s ninth-best goal against average while Colorado was 16th.
The Avs may have a slight edge in goaltending. Semyon Varlamov played 12 more games and won two more than Philipp Grubauer, but it was Grubauer providing the clutch netminding down the stretch – winning 8 of their last 9 games stopping 95% of the shots. The native of Germany, who started two playoff games last year with Cup champion Washington, figures to be Colorado’s first game starter against the Flames.
Mike Smith appears to be the goalkeeper the Flames will open with but look for coach Bill Peters to have a short leash and should the 37-year-old, who last saw playoff action in 2012, faulter David Rittich would a chance. Rittich has no NHL playoff series but won 27 games during the regular-season including two over Colorado.
Some suggest that not having a true #1 starting goalie hinders the Flames and Avalanche chances to win it all come late May or early June. Not necessarily, the last four Cup championships on the night they collected the big prize all four had a different starting goaltender from the one they started the playoffs with.
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