The 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs begin tonight at 5:00pm MT, with the Columbus Blue Jackets at the Tampa Bay Lightning set as the inaugural game. The Colorado Avalanche will begin their trek for that big silver thing on Thursday night at 8:00pm MT, going on the road against the Calgary Flames.
At this point in the tournament, everyone is on equal footing. It’s that time of the season where if you keep finding ways to score more goals, prevent as many chances, and stop more shots than your opponent every night — and you do it four times per team — you can be the last team standing. Any of the 16 teams in the tournament can win the Cup. So why not the Avs?
Colorado’s first opponent of the playoffs will be the Calgary Flames. They finished first in the Western Conference, but their flaws are obvious. First and foremost, their goaltending. Secondly, their lack of playoff experience. In the past six seasons, they have as many trips to the playoffs as the Avalanche.
Our friends over at our sister site that covers the Flames, Matchsticks and Gasoline, wrote a very good preview for the series, including game video and head-to-head matchups to fill your heart’s desire. For this preview, we’ll talk about performances and players and a broad brush-stroke of the series.
Playoff Preview: Calgary Flames vs Colorado Avalanche https://t.co/WPo092Je3P— z - Matchsticks & Gasoline (@MatchsticksCGY) April 9, 2019
M&G also interviewed our Managing Editor, Tom Hunter, on everything he knows about the Avs and what he thinks the series will look like from the opposite perspective.
Personally, I was surprised that it was as long as it was. Haha, jokes aside, it was a very good read and something I recommend reading along with this article and the preview linked above.
Okay, that’s enough preamble, let’s get into it.
All statistics can be found at Evolving-Hockey.com, NaturalStatTrick.com, and Hockey-Reference.com. A quick crash course on expected goal models. They take in information such as shot location, shooter/goalie quality, and situational information (distance and time from previous shot, shot type, etc) to come up with a number of goals a player/team is supposed to score on average.
In broad terms, the Flames are a solid top-five to top-10 team in terms of generating offense at 5v5. All season, they were very good at getting shots off and from good location, as shown from the expected goals and scoring chances numbers. The Avalanche are a team that likes to take shots from the point and from the wing, while the Flames tend to push themselves to the middle of the offensive zone and take shots from there. Combine this tactic with the fourth-best shooting percentage in the league, and you get yourself the top team in the West.
Compared to the Avalanche, Calgary’s shot metrics were above average while Colorado was merely average. For two teams that ranked 30th and 31st in minutes played at 5v5, that difference in even-strength offense, combined with better defense and special teams, was one of the areas where the Flames found marginal gains to put them 17 points ahead.
In terms of players, the Flames get most of their 5v5 offense from five players, compared to Colorado’s four (yes, Soderberg had that good of a season). Johnny Gaudreau is the obvious superstar on this team. He’s not only an amazing playmaking presence, he also had 36 goals to his name (only six came on the power play). His line with center Sean Monahan and winger Elias Lindholm were a dominant 60% goals for line when together.
Past them is where the Avalanche will have trouble matching up. Matthew Tkachuk has turned into a legitimate star, posting 34 goals and 43 assists in his third season in the NHL. His partnership with Mikael Backlund on the second line has been a big part of Calgary’s one-two punch. However the Avalanche matchup the Flames, the Gaudreau and Tkachuk lines will be tough assignments for the Nathan MacKinnon and Carl Soderberg lines. They can do it, but it’ll take a major commitment to defense for MacKinnon and his boys to break even, let alone get ahead in this arena.
The Flames don’t have great goaltending, we all know this, but what has made their group so successful this season has been the five-man unit (yes, I said five) in front of their guys with the big pads and their ability to limit shots and chances. Same goes for the Avalanche, who also had trying goaltending at times. One thing I’ll give the Avalanche credit for is their ability this season to keep shot attempts away from the middle of the ice.
An x-factor in the series will be whether they can clear the crease, as it is one area where they tend to give up more chances than other teams in the league. With players like Tkachuk on the Flames willing to make that sacrifice to play in those spots, covering rebounds and not letting an opponent get inside positioning will be key every time the puck is in the Avs’ zone.
The Flames, led by Norris Trophy candidate Mark Giordano, have some of the best defensive numbers in the NHL. A top-five defensive team held back solely because of a team save percentage of .917 (21st in the league). The Avalanche, by comparison, sat at ninth in the league with a .922 at 5v5.
It’s not just Giordano, everyone on the Flames has been committed and able to limit the shots and chances against them, and have done so to a degree that covers up their one glaring weakness. The question in the playoffs will be whether Colorado’s top scorers can pick away at the wall and open the floodgates.
David Rittich has been the better of the two goalies in Calgary this season. Yet here we are on the dawn of the playoffs with Mike Smith ready to be the starter - at least for a game or two.This is a weakness the Avalanche absolutely must exploit. As long as Mike Smith is in net the team has a chance to put up a lot of offense.
On the flip side, Phillip Gruabuer has the potential to steal the series. His season-long numbers aren’t great but only Ben Bishop has been better since the trade deadline.
Just discovered today that the Calgary Flames are starting Mike Smith in net against the Avalanche. Meanwhile, David Rittich has a top-10 sv% at 5v5.— Hardev Lad (@HardevLad) April 10, 2019
@ Flams: wyd
There are a lot of numbers here, but basically, the Avalanche and Flames are the two best teams at drawing penalties, but both rely on shooting talent to get the job done. Colorado has the advantage here, despite the marginally worse shot metrics.
For the Avalanche, MacKinnon is one of the best in the league in terms of creating power play shots; he’s fifth in the category of individual shots for per 60 minutes on the power play, ahead of the likes of Auston Matthews, Alex Ovechkin, and Patrik Laine.
Meanwhile on the other side, Monahan from in front of the net has one of the highest individual expected goals rates in the league. Both players could play a big part in the series if the referees let them.
On the penalty kill, the story on the Flames’ side carries over from the goaltending. They were one of the best teams in the league at limiting attempts at their own net, but couldn’t make a save to save their life. Rittich will need to be much better on the kill for the Flames if they want a chance at keeping that area of the game at a break-even pace at best.
The Avalanche were the best team in the league at drawing penalties (however, they also played a high-event style that meant they also gave up the most power plays), so if they can get to the man advantage early and often, they could make up for the losses they have on paper when it comes to even-strength play.
One thing that might spark from two teams not being afraid to take penalties will be the possibility that this series gets nasty. There are players on both sides of the equation that could start a fire in Game One, and it may not flame out until after the handshakes are completed. (Yes, I’m looking at you Nikita Zadorov and Matthew Tkachuk). The playoffs are a dirty place, with extra sticks to the legs and hands, extra hits along the boards, and an extra motivation to go for the big hit to get some attention. I would like to wish that both teams just have fun, but something tells me it’ll be a futile effort.
Hug your Flames fan friends now, for you’ll be bitter rivals in a week or so.