Another day, another bracket breaker.
The Calgary Flames were yet another team that went up in flames during the first round of the NHL Playoffs. All four number 1 seeds lost in the first round. Ryan Kelly tackled the Tampa Bay question earlier this week. As for the West, that’s where I come in. Western Conference leader, Calgary, was smothered by the Colorado Avalanche. And that isn’t pejorative: Colorado took 2 of their 4 wins with a 4 goal difference, was out shot, and resorting to impulses rather than the calculated hockey we had learned to see from them. Colorado found the various holes in the armor…
Hole #1: Goaltending
Throughout the regular season, Calgary successfully ran a fully split two-man goaltending core. Despite calling Smith the “starter”, Mike Smith ended with 42 games played and David Rittich saw the ice in 45 games. That’s hardly a backup. they both allowed 109 goals all season and were within points of each other in most other stats. Rittich did win more games and had a slightly better season if you look at the numbers but when it came time to run to the finish line and start the playoffs, Smith took the starts. This was ultimately a mistake.
Now, after the fact, Calgary said that Rittich had a knee injury. Who knows if that is true but it was not announced until April 22nd, three days after the season-ending game against Colorado. Rittich never touched the ice in the playoffs. However, Smith was being pummeled in the net. For this series, Colorado averaged a massive 41 shots per game. The league average in the regular season was 31. In Game 3 alone, Colorado took 56 shots to score 6 goals. Colorado drove hard a goaltender who barely started the entire season. By the time they were done, he was Swiss cheese from the amount of shots he faced. If Rittich was not injured enough to announce and not be dressed, he should have been on the ice. No one can take 56 shots and then play well the next day. Yes, the defense needed to step up but the goalie also needs even 5 minutes to recover mentally from the deluge.
Hole #2: Shooting Percentage
The league average for 5-on-5 shooting percentage was 7.5% this season. Calgary finished with 8.4% and Colorado was 7.1%. In overall play, Calgary stacked at 10.9% and Colorado had 9.6% with a league average of 9.5%. Colorado in general is average in this category but Calgary consistently dominated in the regular season. Though a slightly obscure statistic versus shots overall or scoring chances, it can really make or break a hockey game. Think about it: if you score more often when you shoot, you need less shots to theoretically win. Shut down the shooting overall and make the shots that are taken harder to make, you could really win a game on that alone. And that is what Colorado did.
In just this series, Colorado didn’t increase their own average. In fact, their overall shooting percentage dropped to 7.96%, significantly lower than their season average. However, they successfully dropped Calgary’s. By driving the speed and angles of the shots, Calgary finished the series with an abysmal 6.72%: over 4 full percentage points lower than the regular season.
This turned out to be a major deciding factor in this series. Couple that with the overwhelming amount of shots Colorado took at the Calgary goalies, you have a nail in a coffin. When you look at the goals Calgary did score, some of their biggest hitters don’t appear. These finesse and momentum based players that succeed when in total control floundered under the Avalanche pressure. I’m looking at you, Johnny “Johnny Hockey” Gaudreau. If your top scorer is not connecting, it’s hard to recover and has been a theme these playoffs league-wide.
Hole #3: Penalty Killing or more likely just dumb penalties
Eventually, Calgary became desperate. And they got frustrated. And they were in the penalty box a lot. Colorado scored a power-play goal in every win except Game 2. That wasn’t from lack of chances. By the end of the series, Calgary had 33 penalties and Colorado had 5 power play goals. A significant number of those penalties could be called “impulse” penalties. I’m including a roughing penalty for goalie Mike Smith in Game 2 of all people, multiple misconducts, embellishment by Gaudreau, delays of game and, of all things in playoff hockey, too many men on the ice.
Game 3 and the twelve penalties were the tipping point. I always say that hockey is a game of momentum and that game swayed momentum away from Calgary. Every penalty was an attempt to control, an attempt to invigorate. None were successful. And Colorado knew exactly what they were doing. In the regular season, Colorado was 7th overall in the league for power play scoring percentage. On the other hand, Calgary was 21st in penalty kill success. Forcing frustration, mistakes, and thus penalties kept the game in Colorado’s favor. They won off of dumb mistakes and their ability to capitalize in those situations.
Colorado deserved that series.
I had Calgary taking it all but I also thought that the speed and agility of Calgary would be too hard for anyone, let alone Colorado, to pin. It was because I had a vision of something else in this playoff series. I saw flashy goals of Gaudreau skating rings around everyone and scoring on a fancy backhand. I saw them prepping for their shortcomings and being ready for the deck stacked against them. Ultimately, I was wrong and Colorado won. Thus continues the “Game of Thrones” style execution of the top seeds. And now, it is anyone’s game. May the Cup be ever in your favor!