Game 1 in Calgary tonight, 9pm
Game 2 in Calgary Saturday, 9:30
Game 3 in Denver Monday, 9pm
Game 4 in Denver Wednesday, 9pm
At the top, this one seems the most cut and dried of the West. Then again, we said that about the Jackets and Lightning, and even though that might still turn out that way after a blip, this is hockey after all and rarely does anything work out as it appears it should. It is the unruly toddler of sports. And the Flames have the one crack that can make any series turn goofy, and that’s goaltending, or lack thereof. The Avalanche’s time is next year and beyond, but are certainly good enough to walk through the door if Mike Smith keeps opening it and kicking them in the direction. Our last preview, let’s go.
Goalies: Phillip Grubauer was pulling a mini-Jake Allen for the first half of the season, as the Avalanche wanted him to have the job but he just wouldn’t take it. He and Semyon Varlamov were kind of Duck-Season-Rabbit-Season’ing it for the schedule’s first half. And then right about the time the Avs ruined the Hawks playoff hopes the first time, Grubauer finally relented and accepted, and he’s been brilliant ever since. A .955 in March would certainly qualify as that.
The problem for Grubs is he’s been here before, a year ago exactly in DC. And he hacked up a hairball, Braden Holtby took over, and you know the rest. Maybe that experience steels him for this. But until you do it in the postseason, everyone’s going to ask if you’re the guy or not. So he’s got some history to shed.
The history Mike Smith has to shed is much more recent, and much worse. He’s been a bitchy, wandering suckbag most of the season, and that’s when he could be bothered to actually be in the net. And the leash will be short, which probably will only make him even more of a malcontent. Considering how hard the Avs forecheck, he’s going to fuck up with the puck once in the first two games, but of course it won’t be his fault. This is the first team Smith has played on that mattered since 2012, and we all remember what happened then. But that was a long time ago with a much younger man. No amount of dives are going to save him this time.
If he fumbles it, or more to the point fumbles more than the Flames are already expecting him to, David Rittich will get tossed into the fire as a savior but with no safety net. Rittich faltered badly in the season’s back end after screaming to get the job full-time in the first portion. The Flames might just be Cup-worthy everywhere else, but they are depending on a moody dipshit and an untested rookie to navigate these seas. Hey…the 2010 Hawks did it?
Defense: The Avs defense will be good, possibly better than that, when Cale Makar and possibly what they add in the draft with Ottawa’s pick arrive next year. I still remain unconvinced of this one. Tyson Barrie rules, and beyond that I just can’t see it. Erik Johnson has made a career out of being fine and really unable to be picked out from the scenery. It’s not that it’s a bad defense, it just doesn’t distinguish itself, even if the numbers are middle of the pack to slightly better. At some point, tossing Ian Cole (BAYBAY!) over the boards consistently has to end in paper cuts and stains.
The Flames on the other hand have this year’s likely Norris winner in Mark Giordano, even if it’s more of a lifetime achievement award than for a career season (though it is that offensively). Going back to play with Gio has revitalized T.J. Brodie, which is a huge shock I’m sure. Travis Hamonic has had a bounce-back season. The third pairing is either some very green kids in Andersson or Kylington, or some very puce (sure?) vets in Fantenberg or Prout. But you can hide a third pair in the playoffs if you have to.
Forwards: The Avs are getting Mikko Suave back, and they’ll probably keep him on a line away from Nathan MacKinnon and Gabriel LaxativeLog. I doubt that lasts long. The Avs are still one line, no matter that J.T. Compher looks like the lovechild of Rick Tocchet and Jim Brown against the Hawks. Carl Soderberg…whatever. That line can do a whole lot of things, but it’s probably going to have to do them all in this series if the Avs are going to pull the upset.
The Flames have no such problems. They have two to three lines, assuming they’re still not trying to make Michael Frolik feel like the dog who just left a puddle on the floor. Gaudreau and Monahan are as good of a combination as you’ll find, and you’ll have to silence your cellphones, hold your applause, and shut your damn mouths to WALK WITH ELIAS. Whether Backlund and Matthew Tkachuk get Frolik as a third or not, that’s still the most dominant possession line in hockey with some of the worst zone starts. In the playoffs, that should be an enormous weapon. The Flames fall off after that, and if they don’t come out of the West this will probably be the area they address immediately after goalie. Sam Bennett is a useful third center, who doesn’t have to do the checking things because Backlund does. Garnet Hathaway has been a contributor. Mark Jankowski as well, but as third lines go you’ll see better in the playoffs. But it is more than the Avs have.
Prediction: The Flames goaltending can overturn them at any time. And one bad game at home could see a pretty young team with little playoff experience get jittery in a hurry. And yet this team amassed 107 points without a goalie. Against a more sustained attack, it would be a bigger problem. But the expectation is that Giordano and Brodie can play MacKinnon to even close to a standstill, and from there the Flames are just better with more weapons. Their goaltending may get them. It’s just not going to be here.
Flames in six.