First-round flops, or 82-game heroes? Flames are hard to figure out

Calgary Flames Sean Monahan react after a goal was disallowed against the Colorado Avalanche in game two of the Western Conference First Round during the 2019 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at the Scotiabank Saddledome in Calgary on Friday, April 19, 2019. Al Charest/Postmedia

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It was a wonderful winter.

It was a short spring.

As the Calgary Flames digest the frustration and finality of their first-round playoff ouster, this is perhaps the biggest question of them all — which, really, should be considered the surprise?

The fact they racked up 50 victories during the regular season, cranking up expectations along the way and entering the 2019 Stanley Cup playoffs as the top seed in the Western Conference?

Or the fact they were so swiftly and unceremoniously punted from the spring dance, losing in five games to speedy superstar Nathan MacKinnon and the Colorado Avalanche.

“We had a great team, a great year,” said Flames captain Mark Giordano after Friday’s last gasp — a 5-1 thumping at the Saddledome. “I don’t know how many times we lost four in a row all year, if we did. But never with this feeling, never that we couldn’t execute properly, that we couldn’t score, we couldn’t make the big plays at the big times … We were doing it all year.

“It’s going to be a long summer, that’s for sure. This is going to be a tough one to swallow. Nobody saw this coming.”


YOU BE THE BOSS: How would you fix the Calgary Flames?


Thing is, not many predicted the Flames’ rapid rise to contender, either.

You could argue they overachieved for five-plus months, from when they were pummelled by the Pittsburgh Penguins in late October until they clinched the pennant in the Western Conference with a dominant performance against the division rival Sharks in San Jose at the end of March.

Then, for five games at the worst possible time, they were underachievers. Indisputable.

The Avalanche had actually collected more points since the all-star break, so this wasn’t as much of a mismatch as presented. But the Flames looked, at best, like a plucky wildcard hoping to stun a superior opponent. Not the other way around.

The challenge now for general manager Brad Treliving and his cohorts is to determine which edition — The 82-Game Do-Gooders or The First-Round Flops — were showing the true colours.

That, really, sets the table for the summer.

After a 23-point improvement, after rocketing from 20th to second in the overall standings, it seems reasonable to stay the course.

Unless, that is, you don’t think your team has the make-up or moxie to win when it matters most.

“Some of the strengths that we had during the regular season weren’t strengths in Round 1,” admitted Flames head coach Bill Peters after Friday’s finisher. “And I can’t explain it to you why some of those went away. It will be interesting, as we reflect and look back and try to find some answers.”

The off-season always brings more questions than answers, and that’s especially true for this current cast of Flames, a team that allowed a whopping 41 shots per game in their five clashes with the Avalanche.

When your playoff stay is so short, so unfulfilling, there are not many certainties.

Around these parts and others, folks have been wondering since his arrival if wee winger Johnny Gaudreau could be an impact sort in the annual tournament. He certainly wasn’t against the Avs, finishing with one measly assist.

A penalty-shot goal or breakaway bury — or both — in Game 5 would have been nice, but it wouldn’t have silenced the doubters. Gaudreau could erase Wayne Gretzky’s single-season scoring records during the 2019-20 campaign, and show-us-in-the-spring would still be the prevailing sentiment.

Sean Monahan is an easy target, too.

You don’t often win a Stanley Cup without a premier first-line centre — a Crosby or a Kopitar or a Toews. Monahan, who mustered two points during this early exit, doesn’t belong in the same breath as those guys, but do the Flames think he can be a cornerstone for a contender?

What about Matthew Tkachuk? The 21-year-old, about to become the highest-paid player in franchise history, was supposed to be a playoff stud. In nine post-season showings so far, he has been that exactly once — in Game 1 against the Avs.

What about Giordano, who will surely be named Sunday as a Norris Trophy finalist? How much does the 35-year-old have left? And who is the best fit to skate as his sidekick on the top pairing?

What about Mike Smith, or what about David Rittich? Who should be starting puck-stopper at the Saddledome next season?

You would never guess it from looking at the score-lines, but Smith was nothing short of sensational during this brief playoff push. An unrestricted free agent this summer, the 37-year-old — saluted just before Friday’s final buzzer with chants of ‘Smitty! Smitty!’ — seems keen on coming back.

Rittich, remember, was much more consistent during the winter. If Big Save Dave, 26, is the goalie-of-the-future, isn’t the time now?

Or will there be an external search for a new best-bet between the pipes?

And then, the biggest question of all …

What the hell happened in the playoffs?

Or should it be, what the hell happened in the regular season?

The Flames weren’t supposed to be so good, so soon.

They weren’t supposed to be gone so soon.

Now what?

wgilbertson@postmedia.com

Twitter.com/WesGilbertson

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