Great Learning Experience

April 23, 2019 | Peter Maher

Sponsored by Green Drop

Sometimes a team has to lose before it wins.

Perhaps that’s the solace the Flames and their fans can take from the disturbing loss in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs after an enormously high build-up.

The regular-season was the best the Flames produced in the 30 years since they won the Stanley Cup. The 50 wins and 107 points fostered feelings the Cup would come back to Calgary this year. Those expectations are what made Friday’s elimination in five games to the supposedly inferior Colorado Avalanche so difficult to take. Looking at positively perhaps it was a great learning experience for the Flames.

A historical note is required here. In 1988, the season before the Flames 1989 championship, they finished first in the entire NHL and were favored to capture the Cup. That Flames team eliminated Los Angeles in the first round and then lost four-straight to Edmonton in round two. It produced the same disappointed feeling Calgarians are feeling now. That team, like so many other NHL squads before and after, had to lose before they could win.

Some teams, like the Washington Capitals, had to lose numerous times before finally winning it all last June. So did the New York Islanders before they won four-straight Cups to start the 80’s. Plus, a bunch of others including Detroit Red Wings before they won back-to-back in 1997 and 1998 as well another one later. The key to following up an upset defeat is learning from it properly. Players adjusting and management making proper alterations.

Flames players will have all summer to reflect on why the playoffs weren’t better and what they can do personally to make next season better. Flames management and coaches need to let the sting sink in for a few more days and take the emotion out of it before thoughtfully planning for the 2019-20 season.

I was aghast with so-called NHL “experts” mostly from the east, at the trade deadline and afterward when they, almost-to-a-person, didn’t feel the Flames were built to be a Cup contender. Turns out they were right. Also turns out many of them were wrong in assessing that the Tampa Bay Lightning were built to win it all. Only to see the Lightning eliminated one game before the Flames last week. It marked the first time in NHL history that the two-best regular-season teams were eliminated in the first round of playoffs.

General Manager Brad Treliving displayed such confidence in the assembled Flames group that he made just one minor trade at the deadline. Now Treliving and company need to assess what went wrong and seek necessary adjustments. Certainly, a thorough house-cleaning isn’t necessary.

Late Friday night after Colorado’s clinching 5-1 victory, Hockey Night in Canada panelist Nick Kypreos voiced the opinion the Flames weren’t a ‘heavy’ enough team to have post-season success. In other words, not tough or physical enough. More than any other sport, hockey games change from regular-season to playoffs. Emphasis on preparation, fewer penalties and even strength goals, more all-out shot blocking and sacrificing. The ice shrinks, less time and less space, hits are harder. Star players generally get more attention. The ability to have the personnel to adjust is key. Top players have to be just that.

A telling statistic was that during the regular-season the Flames were the only NHL team to have five players with more than 70 points (Gaudreau, Monahan, Lindholm, Tkachuk, and Giordano). In the playoffs, only one of the five (Tkachuk) was among the team’s top five scorers. Four of Colorado’s top five regular-season scorers were among the team’s top five in the series with the Flames. Johnny Gaudreau’s best game was the last one but he missed on three breakaways, including a penalty shot, not seeming to have the confidence he displayed during the season when he rarely missed one-on-one against the goalie. He also had misfortune in the last game when what would have been his only goal of the series was called back with a goalie interference call against Sam Bennett, who was the Flames best skaters in the series.

For much of the five games the Flames had weren’t on to details, missed assignments, displaying lack of urgency and confidence. They were beaten in the speed and physical elements. The Flames had company in these areas since much of same could be said for three other favored teams – Tampa, Winnipeg, and Pittsburgh – also upset in round one.

The Flames weren’t ready for the moment. Perhaps they will be next season or the season after. Or, heaven forbid, not at all. It depends on forthcoming adjustments.

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