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Is something rotten in the state of Calgary?

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Is the Flames’ playoff failure indicative of a bigger problem?

Colorado Avalanche v Calgary Flames - Game Five Photo by Derek Leung/Getty Images

So your team, the one seed in the conference, didn’t get swept, but they did go out in five games to a team that almost everybody (this writer included) thought they were demonstrably better than.

But here we are, Flames fans, sinking into the start of the second round and staring down a much longer off-season than we imagined we would have. So what went wrong here? Are the Flames farther away from contending than we thought? Is this first round exit indicative of a bigger problem with the team? We’ve let the feelings calm down a bit, we’ve given ourselves a bit of time to breathe, and we’re ready to talk. Let’s have a look.

Goaltending

So, we were pretty wrong about the goaltending situation. We went into the series saying probably, based on the regular season numbers, that a Semyon Varlamov versus David Rittich matchup would be the best for both teams. But we didn’t get that. Instead we got Philipp Grubauer and Mike Smith. A Mike Smith that put up a .906 save percentage during the regular season. And if you had time traveled into my living room when I was working on that preview and told me we would be getting five games of him, I would have been worried.

But, it seems, that concern would turn out to be unfounded. In fact, we could feel comfortable, now that it’s all said and done, saying that Smith was one of their best players during this series. He finished with a .947 save percentage, stopping 142 of the 150 shots he faced at 5-on-5 and finishing fourth among all goalies who played in the first round. Smith’s high danger save percentage of .935 is little short of stellar, and also ranks him fourth among playoff goalies (and third among starters).

So what’s the moral of the story? A cold goalie can inflict major damage on a team performing at even a high level, just as a hot goalie (Grubauer and his .966 save percentage, hello) can give their team a major boost, and while it’s become something of an easy knee-jerk reaction to blame Smith for the team’s failings, that isn’t what happened here. He had his work cut out for him, but he did well to try to keep his team in it. This wasn’t his fault.

Chances against

If you were watching the American broadcast like I was, one of the points that the broadcast team seemed to key in on was the fact that the Flames allowed some of the fewest chances during the regular season. We hit on this in our preview, too, that the Flames allowed 52.02 CA/60 and 27.96 SA/60 during the regular season. But the Flames weren’t able to maintain this same clip, and saw those averages climb to 68.04 CA/60 and 38.22 SA/60 during the playoffs, and they also tacked on a 2.86 xGA/60 at 5-on-5. And that’s just… yikes.

What does that look like? I’m glad you asked.

This graphic is just from Game 4 in Colorado (which ended in the Flames’ second 3-2 overtime loss), but is more or less indicative of the shooting locations the Avalanche were able to take advantage of across the whole of the series (though the Game 3 6-2 blowout loss features an increased shot density in the slot, as one might expect). The Avalanche did well at getting inside the Flames’ defenders and collapsing the slot to register more high danger chances. The Flames were bleeding high danger chances at a higher rate than any other team in the first round. As we said, Mike Smith was solid, but those odds are close to insurmountable. He needed some help.

Chances for

That help, then, if not from defense would have come from simply scoring more goals than their opponent, something they were able to do handily during the regular season, something that became much more difficult once the post-season hit. The Flames’ 2.87 GF/60 at 5-on-5 during the regular season dropped to a meager 1.02 in their five playoff games. They couldn’t seem to put the puck in the back of the net.

Symptomatic of this was the fact that they weren’t really able to generate many shots and chances in the first place. The Flames were registering 55.8 CF/60 and 10.7 HDCF/60 during the playoffs, also a sharp drop from their 60.66 CF/60 and 11.45 HDCF/60 during the regular season. For a comparison, let’s look at their shooting locations from Game 4.

It’s a pretty marked difference. The Avalanche were able to keep the Flames to the outside, when they were able to get shots off, which, of course, was less frequently than the Avalanche. I don’t need to tell you that more shots tend to equal more goals, and considering that the Flames weren’t generating chances, it’s not much of mystery why they weren’t scoring at the same rate that they were earlier in the year.

So how did that happen? The answer lies largely in forechecking pressure. The Avalanche weren’t doing anything really revolutionary, but they were playing fast, and they were playing aggressive. We saw it across the board, but particularly against the Flames’ top two lines, that the Avalanche were more aggressive in going after the puck carrier and loose pucks. The Flames didn’t have very much time with the puck to make a decision before they had an Avalanche player directly pressuring them and forcing them to either make a panic play or turn the puck over. The same was the case with loose pucks, for example, if the Flames were looking to generate a chance on the rush, they had one shot at it, because if the shot didn’t go in and there was a rebound, the Avalanche were almost certainly right on top of it and getting it the puck moving in transition, looking for a chance of their own.

It’s a favorite adage for hockey players in their media interviews, that limiting time and space is key, and maybe it’s become trite to say it, but the Avalanche did it, and the Flames didn’t have an answer.

Confounding factors

We would be remiss if we didn’t make note of some other possible external factors that hindered the Flames in this series. We learned during their exit interviews that David Rittich has been battling a nagging knee injury for much of the back half of the season, which is maybe tangential because he didn’t end up playing in this series anyway. The big one, though, was that Sean Monahan was playing with a cracked thumb (whatever exactly that means). There may well have been more dings throughout the lineup than we know about because, as hockey men love to say, everyone’s hurt in the playoffs. And they try to soldier through. And should this be an excuse? Nope, not necessarily. But if we’re looking for reasons why players weren’t as effective as we might have hoped, well, this might be one. Anyway.

Takeaways

So, where are we? Does this all point to a deeper structural weakness with the team? In truth, it’s hard to say. We have a much larger sample of the team performing well than we do of them fizzling, and fizzling hard. They had little short of an incredible regular season, and we shouldn’t erase that because they couldn’t get past the first round, as tough as that is to swallow.

The playoffs are flukey, and weird things happen. What we seem to have here is a very good team that ran into a hotter team in the Avalanche, who just seemed to have their number. We have to give credit to the Avalanche, here, because they came in and they knew exactly how to shut down the Flames’ offense and limit their time and space, and Bill Peters, and the Flames as a whole, just couldn’t seem to figure out how to adjust on the fly and get themselves back into the mix. And that’s unfortunate, there’s no way around that. This stings, and it should, so they can carry it with them into next year. Use it, there’s something to be learned here—the smartest kid in class still has to do their homework too.

All stats and graphics via HockeyViz and Natural Stat Trick.