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Calgary can't keep up with Colorado as Avalanche continue beating Flames at their own game

Colorado has controlled play and dizzied Calgary with the exact type of puck possession game that was a staple of the Flames' game this season, and it's led the Avalanche within one win of the second round.

There’s this old coaching cliche, one you’ll surely hear parroted by players in a healthy number of the between-periods interviews throughout the post-season, that suggests the clearest path to victory is “playing our game.” But in the first-round meeting between the Flames and Avalanche, Colorado is trying something a bit different: they’re playing Calgary’s game, and the Avalanche are beating them at it.

If the 82-game playoff preview that is the regular season told us anything about this season’s Flames, it’s that Calgary was quite possibly the best version of a Bill Peters’ coached team. That’s to say that the Flames played a puck possession game that overwhelmed opponents and eventually broke them. The underlying numbers tell that story. At 5-on-5 during the regular season, Calgary ranked fifth in Corsi percentage (53.8), sixth in shots percentage (53.1), fifth in scoring chances percentage (53.5). And with more weapons at his disposal than he had had in any season during his tenure with the Carolina Hurricanes, where he got his start as a bench boss, Peters’ group was absolutely, positively lethal. The Flames’ 289 goals were tied for second-most in the NHL, the product of Calgary’s bombardment of the offensive zone.

Had you tuned into Game 4 of the Flames’ first-round series against the Avalanche, though, it would have been difficult to believe those regular season numbers didn’t skew in Colorado’s favor. On a night in which the Flames were fighting to draw even in the series and avoid falling behind 3-1 as the series shifts back to Calgary, Colorado dominated the puck possession game, controlled the run of play. In regulation, the Avalanche managed the lion’s share of the shot attempts, a staggering 60.7 percent, to be exact. The result? Colorado looked Harlem Globetrotters-esque in a come-from-behind overtime victory that put them one win away from advancing to the second round and Calgary one loss away from an all-too-early playoff exit.

Especially stunning about the Avalanche’s performance, though, is that Colorado’s play-driving dominance – a middle of the road outfit that generally broke even in the possession game during the regular season – has somehow become the norm, even if only across an admittedly small four-game sample. To wit, since Game 1’s loss, which was paired with just 48.3 percent of the 5-on-5 shot attempts, the Avalanche have posted single-game Corsi percentages of 61.1 percent (Game 2), 53.1 percent (Game 3) and 59.4 percent (Game 4), giving Colorado an 55.8 percent Corsi rate at five-a-side through the series. And that wasn’t at all supposed to be the story of the series.

As noted in our series preview, in the three regular season meetings between Calgary and Colorado, the Flames controlled 5-on-5 play to the tune of a 56.5 Corsi percentage, 56.4 scoring chances percentage and finished with a 56.3 goals percentage. The first of those figures has clearly tilted heavily back in the Avalanche’s favor, but so, too, have the latter: Colorado has 58.2 percent of the scoring chances at five-a-side and 62.5 percent of the goals.

The problem for the Flames’ through four games, and the past three in particular, has been an almost wholesale inability to control the Avalanche through the neutral zone. Be it getting caught flat footed or instances of Colorado’s skill players simply breaking by defenders, Calgary has been shredded time and again through the middle of the ice. More often than not that has led to zone time for Colorado, which in turn allows the Avalanche to control the flow of the game and force the Flames to play on the back foot, something they were rarely tasked with doing during the regular season. And now, with their season on the line, Calgary needs to start answering.

That begins with the Flames’ top stars. While the Avalanche’s Nathan MacKinnon, Mikko Rantanen and Gabriel Landeskog have done their part to take over in the series, combining for six goals, 14 points and 69 shots in four games. Included in that are overtime winners from MacKinnon and Rantanen. Calgary’s top talents have performed nowhere near that level, for which full marks should go to the Colorado defense, though some of the blame undoubtedly falls on the Flames’ top scorers’ shoulders. Johnny Gaudreau, Sean Monahan and Elias Lindholm, who finished one-two-three in scoring for Calgary during the regular season, have a combined two goals, five points and 30 shots. That lack of production has hurt the Flames’ attack in a big way, as Calgary has two or fewer goals three times in four games.

Putting an even greater onus on the Flames’ top talents – and roster as a whole – to tilt the ice back in Calgary’s favor and start stuffing the scoresheet is that the team’s projected Achilles heel, goaltender Mike Smith, has been one of the best players on the ice for either team. Though he’s statistically being out-played by Avalanche goaltender Philipp Grubauer, who has a .933 save percentage through four games and has played wonderfully in the Colorado crease, Smith has faced nearly 40 additional shots and still sports a .931 SP of his own. If the Flames were going to lose this series, it was supposed to be because of their goaltending, but right now, goaltending is the only thing that has saved Calgary from outright embarrassment over the past three games.

If the Flames are going to get back in the series and avoid suffering an only slightly less humiliating first-round collapse than the one the Tampa Bay Lightning suffered at the hands of the Columbus Blue Jackets, it begins with slowing down the Avalanche attack through the neutral zone, breaking up passing lanes and closing the gaps that have allowed Colorado to carry the puck with speed. After that, it’s up to the Flames’ best players to be their best players. But if neither happens come Game 5, Calgary is going to have a long summer to think about the series that was and how they managed to get beaten at their own game.

(All advanced statistics via NaturalStatTrick)

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