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Flames take commanding series lead over reeling Canucks with Game 4 win

The Flames took a commanding 3-1 series lead with an impressive 3–1 victory over the Canucks on Tuesday night.

The Flames pushed the Canucks to the brink of elimination with a 3–1 win in Game 4 on Tuesday night at the Scotiabank Saddledome. Calgary chased Vancouver starter Eddie Lack with three goals in the opening stanza, including the first career playoff goal by Calder Trophy candidate Johnny Gaudreau. The Flames will look to close out the series on Thursday night in Vancouver.

Here are three quick thoughts on the contest:

Game recap | box score

1. Better late than never

Gaudreau, Sean Monahan and Jiri Hudler might have been the league’s best trio down the stretch but they were conspicuously ineffective through the first three games of the series. The trio turned in a much splashier performance on Tuesday night, landing eight shots and contributing some committed two-way play to pace the Flames to their critical Game 4 victory.

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It was an effort that that defied the negativity of their so-called “fancystats.” The Canucks may have attempted more shots while they were on the ice, but Gaudreau, Monahan and Hudler generated actual scoring opportunities. And goals. A pair of them.

Gaudreau got the party started just 3:23 into the first period, firing a one-timer from the low slot that Lack had no chance on. It was a pretty finish to a play that began with a spectacular between-the-legs pass executed by Hudler behind the Vancouver net.

Hudler, who learned earlier in the evening that he is one of three finalists for the Lady Byng Trophy, went old-school for his own goal just six minutes later, crashing the net with the man advantage and executing a textbook tip of Dennis Wideman’s blast from the top of the circle.

It says something about the depth and commitment of the Flames that they were able to build a 2-1 series lead with almost no contribution from their top line. If they bring this effort again on Thursday, the Canucks will be hard-pressed to match.

2. Vancouver’s penalty kill is killing them

Discipline could have been an issue during the regular season for Vancouver, a team that was the fifth-most penalized in the league, if not for the fact that its penalty kill was the league’s second-most effective.

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The Canucks are still filling the box during the postseason. And now their penalty kill, which clicked at 85.7%, is coming apart at the seams. Heading into Game 4, the unit had given up three goals on 10 chances. Tuesday night it allowed two more in the first 10 minutes of the game, putting Vancouver into a hole from which it couldn’t crawl out.

What made their struggles more frustrating was the pointlessness of both infractions. Ronalds Kenins was whistled just 1:44 into the game for blatantly—and dangerously—boarding Calgary rookie Sam Bennett. Then it was Nick Bonino who was tagged for a selfish roughing call in the offensive zone. Both deserved to take the Skate of Shame.

The Canucks are now killing at a league-worst 63.6% through four games. For a team that ranks 15th out of 16 teams for penalties taken (ahead only of Calgary), that’s not going to get it done.

3. Ryan Miller may be the only positive sign for the Canucks

There were hints of a silver lining in the loss. Ryan Miller, who stepped in for Lack to start the second period, stopped all 15 shots he faced and looked calm and comfortable in the process—even after having the right knee that kept him out of action down the stretch crushed by marauding Calgary forward Michael Ferland. Miller gave his team every opportunity to stage a comeback and deserves the start in Game 5 back in Vancouver.

Coach Willie Desjardins finally threw in the four-lines towel and gave the Sedins better than 20 minutes of ice time each, well above their regular-season average. If this team has any hope of returning to Calgary for Game 6, it'll need a superlative performance from the twins on Thursday night. That means Desjardins has to trust them with the kind of workload that will get their legs and heads in the game ... and do it right from the start. He’s been rationalizing his careful usage of the Sedins all year as a long-term plan designed to keep them fresh for the postseason. Now that the Canucks are down to their last life, it’s time to cash in that chip.

Beyond that, though, there was little to build on. The defense has turned into a dumpster fire, incapable of matching the speed of Calgary’s forwards or preventing them from setting up camp in the crease. They’ve ceded the physical game to the Flames, especially the devastating Ferland who, with his carnage conservatively recorded at least eight hits on the night, has proven to be a very relevant player in this series.

The Canucks are spending too much time in their own zone, struggling to find an effective exit. And once they get into Calgary’s end, they can’t get anything through a forest of shotblockers to take advantage of a shaky-looking Jonas Hiller. Oh, and three shots in the second period of a game in which you’re trailing by two? That’s the sign of a team with the desperation dialed waaaay down.

Maybe that’s why the offense has completely dried up. Or it could be that the second line, led by Bonino, is too soft to establish any kind of authority through the middle of the ice. Bo Horvat has shown courage, crashing the net consistently, but he’s not finding any loose change. Late adds Linden Vey and Brandon MacMillan offered plenty of spirit, but this game was more than a bit above their paygrade.

Results like these can be expected of minimum wagers like them. The excuses are a little tougher to come by for their more experienced teammates.

Expect some line and lineup shuffling for the Canucks in Game 5. Former Flames first rounder Sven Baertschi should draw in at the expense of MacMillan. He has skill and he’s highly motivated to show up a team that sent him packing at the deadline. No telling if Alex Burrows, who suffered a broken rib in practice Tuesday morning and missed Game 4, will be back but if he's not then Radim Vrbata needs to start and finish the game with the Sedins. He's been a lousy fit on the second line but brings a shooter's mentality that's clicked with the twins before. Horvat should see more time, especially on the power play. And Kevin Bieksa and Luca Sbisa should be buried at the far end of the bench. Better to load up the other four defensemen with 25-minutes plus than risk another staging of Turnover Fest in that must-win Game 5.