It will surely go down as the biggest regular-season-to-playoffs implosion since way back when the Tampa Bay Lightning collapsed against the underdog Columbus Blue Jackets back in '19. Something epic like that.
The Calgary Flames' unimaginable disintegration against the impressive Colorado Avalanche in the first round of the playoffs this spring wiped out a regular season for the ages. Few of us predicted the Flames would set the pace in the Western Conference this season. Even fewer predicted they'd have many problems with the Avs in the first round.
Here are five takeaways from Calgary's epic five-game collapse.
• Shut down Johnny Gaudreau and you take the Flames out at the knees. Full credit goes to Colorado coach Jared Bednar and his staff. It's clear they studied video that the Calgary attack is at it's best when Gaudreau gains the offensive zone, buys time and moves the puck around. Johnny Hockey had precious little time and space in the Colorado zone. Sticks and bodies swarmed him as he approached the blueline. If he was able to gain the zone, it wasn't long before he was separated from the puck. And Calgary didn't have much of a Plan B. It sounds basic enough, but the Avalanche executed and Gaudreau never gained offensive confidence all series. In fact, he lost it and grew frustrated as time went on.
• Just when the Flames evolved as a skilled and offensive team, the NHL playoff winning formula changed with the third key ingredient being toughness, both mental and physical. Calgary didn't have much of that. Matthew Tkachuk is more a post-whistle pest. Sam Bennett and Garnet Hathaway work the walls well, but don't have much finish with the puck. This Flames team cannot play a power game. Coach Bill Peters established a plan this season to get all five players on the ice part of the offensive push. But that sometimes opened holes defensively. In the playoffs, those holes became caverns and the defensemen had to dial things back, especially against Colorado's big weapons Nathan MacKinnon and Mikko Rantanen. The Avalanche found a way to give that extra 10 or 20 percent in the playoffs. The Flames couldn't and essentially retreated instead. That mental toughness is still developing.
• Gaudreau has been both the best thing and worst thing for Sean Monahan over the years. Seems odd to be critical of a 24-year-old center who has averaged 60 points and almost 30 goals through six NHL seasons, including his best offensive year in 2018-19. But playing with a dynamic puck mover and playmaker like Gaudreau virtually his entire career has seen Monahan evolve into a one-trick pony. He's pure and simple a finisher within 20 feet of the net. The other 180 feet is a struggle for him. Monahan isn't a physical player who can work the corners or win a puck battle. His skating is below average by NHL standards. He's not a puckcarrier who can drive play. He's often brain dead in the defensive zone. He hasn't had to be because Gaudreau sets the table offensively and Monahan has only had to work at being in the right spot around the net and being opportunistic – and he's done that part very, very well. And this evaluation is about more than a few bad games against Colorado. Maybe the best thing for Monahan now is to try to re-grow the other elements his game away from the influence of Gaudreau.
• Mark Giordano took a big hit along the boards in Game 1 and looked like he was playing hurt the rest of the series. His skating labored after that. His offensive pinches were less effective, his shot from the point had less zip and he left gaps defensively. Could be he was so worn down from a regular season that will see him win the Norris Trophy. In the playoffs though, he wasn't even Calgary's best defenseman. Maybe next season will be more about pacing and less about giving 'er every game. But that's a big ask for Giordano, who won't wear this playoff prostration well.
• The James Neal experiment has to be over. Signed to a five-year, free agent contract paying him $5.75 AAV, the 30-year-old sniper was a complete washout in Calgary. He was slow from Day 1, couldn't win a job on the top line and floundered to find his form all season. His healthy scratch during the deciding game Friday said it all. Can he or the team save face and try again in Year 2? Is Neal the type of player who will get himself a skating coach over the summer, trim some weight and commit himself to getting back that 20 percent edge that once made him a valuable top-6 winger? Maybe the best recourse is a bad-contract-for-bad-contract trade. Neal to Buffalo for Kyle Okposo (four years left at $6 million)? That might help both players and both teams.
The Flames will get together again probably Monday for garbage bag day at the Saddledome and exit interviews. What they accomplished during the regular season and how they saw it fall apart during the playoffs will have sunk in a little more by then.
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