The Flames’ pursuit of the Stanley Cup ended on Friday night. Their ejection from the NHL playoffs was abrupt and painful, like a fizzled spring romance.
The Colorado Avalanche doomed them to a summer of sorrow with a 5-1 victory at the Scotiabank Saddledome. Their unexpectedly good season will be remembered less for its accomplishments than for its premature elimination. They were given the boot by the last team in the Western Conference to qualify for the postseason.
It wasn’t expected to end like this, in the first round, on home ice, undone by an opponent Calgary had swept during the regular season. The Flames lost four times in a row only once in their first 82 games but did it in five against the Avalanche.
It is all over now.
They played with more pace and muscle in Game 5 than they had at any time in the series, but were still manhandled. The Avalanche, who had to win eight of their last 10 games just to make the playoffs, were the better team.
There were too many mistakes and too many missed chances, and there was too much of Nathan MacKinnon and Mikko Rantanen. Colorado’s highest fliers combined for eight goals and 17 points and were truly never restrained.
At the same time, Calgary’s top line of Johnny Gaudreau, Sean Monahan and Mikael Backlund had three goals and four assists between them. Gaudreau played with more pizzazz on Friday but failed to find the net after posting the best numbers of his career in the regular season: 36 goals, 63 assists and 99 points.
Gaudreau frittered away opportunities twice in the first period when Calgary desperately needed to play with the comfort of a lead. With the game scoreless, he was stopped on a penalty shot by Colorado goalie Philipp Grubauer and then thwarted by him again on a clean breakaway.
Within seconds of Gaudreau’s second misfire, Gabriel Landeskog deflected a soft shot by MacKinnon past Mike Smith and suddenly Colorado had the lead. Rantanen, who sent Game 4 into overtime and won it in sudden death, then put the Avalanche up 2-0.
It looked like the Flames would head into the intermission in an 0-2 hole, but T.J. Brodie flicked a wrist shot by Grubauer with six seconds remaining. For the first time, the sea of red inside the arena on the Stampede Grounds had something substantive to cheer about.
Promise turned only to pain after that as the Avalanche scored three times unanswered. Even when Gaudreau finally did something good, a goal he tucked in behind Grubauer in the second period was waved off for goalie interference.
The Flames challenged the call and lost. It was a lost night in a lost playoff series in a season where they had won the second-most games in franchise history.
“We were not good enough,” Travis Hamonic, a Calgary defenceman, said. “It’s frustrating for me standing here right now. This is not the discussion you want to be having.”
The Flames missed the playoffs in seven of the previous 10 seasons but finished with the second-best record in the NHL. They won 50 games for only the second time in franchise history and looked poised to make a long playoff run.
The last time they had been this good was 1989. That is when they won their lone Stanley Cup. They will have to start anew in the fall.
Calgary coach Bill Peters reshuffled his lineup on Friday night in hope of kick-starting the team’s moribund offence. The Flames had five players score more than 70 points during the regular season but they fell silent when it could not be afforded.
Sam Bennett was promoted to the top line to play with Gaudreau and Monahan, while Lindholm was dropped to the second. James Neal, who was appearing in the playoffs for the ninth straight year, was scratched in favour of the younger (26) and faster Austin Czarnik.
Neal was scoreless in the series’ first four games. The 31-year-old signed a four-year contract as a free agent last summer but struggled through the most difficult season of his career. He had scored 20 or more goals for 10 straight years but slumped to only seven with 12 assists in 2018-19.
The rejiggering was creative but did not provide better results.
The task they faced was monumental, but certainly not impossible. Calgary won all three games against the Avalanche during the regular season and were one of the league’s best home teams. They had three-game winning streaks eight different times.
They just were outplayed by Colorado and MacKinnon especially.
“He is a beast,” Smith said. “He took charge of the whole series. He can turn a game around and he did it the whole series.”
The Avalanche are making back-to-back appearances in the playoffs for the first time since earning 11 straight trips from 1994-95 to 2005-06. This is the first series they have won since 2008.
They played with speed and skill and as if they felt no pressure to succeed.
“Nobody had us winning the series,” Landeskog, the Avalanche captain, said. “Nobody gave us a chance.”
The Flames will have to start all over again in the fall. There is nothing to celebrate. There is no postseason to remember. Only one to regret.
“The regular season means nothing,” Smith said, “except that you get into the playoffs.”