The Flames have a mountain to climb in the playoffs after finishing as the second-best team in the NHL in the regular season.
They were pounded by the Colorado Avalanche 6-2 at the Pepsi Center on Monday night and now trail in the best-of-seven series 2-1. Game 4 is in Denver on Wednesday.
Nathan MacKinnon scored two power-play goals and added an assist – all in the first period – and four other Colorado players had one goal each. The game evolved into a shooting gallery with Mike Smith the target in Calgary’s net. It is hard to fault him after he faced 56 shots.
With the loss, the Flames joined the league’s other top teams during the regular season in trailing in their first-round series. The Tampa Bay’s Lightning could be eliminated by Columbus on Tuesday, and the Boston Bruins fell behind the Maple Leafs 2-1 with their loss on Monday.
The playoffs are upside down, and the Flames are on the wrong end. If they can’t figure something out, they could be returning to Calgary for Game 5 on Friday hoping merely to stay alive.
“Game Two was a disappointing loss, tonight is a lesson,” Calgary coach Bill Peters said. “It is an opportunjity for us to look in the mirror and find out about ourselves."
The Avalanche buried the Flames beneath a barrage of shots in the first period. MacKinnon scored twice on power plays and rookie Cale Makar walked in on the net and blew a shot past Mike Smith to put Colorado ahead 3-0 with 3:58 left.
It was Makar’s first shot in the first period of his first NHL game. The 20-year-old arrived in Denver on Sunday evening after concluding his NCAA career with the University of Massachusetts. Last week he won the Hobey Baker Award, which is to college hockey what the Heisman Trophy is to football.
When Makar scored, the sellout crowd let out a deafening roar. Fans rose and shook their pompoms.
The Avalanche outshot the overwhelmed Flames 21-8 in the first period. After going 0 for 10 on the power play in the first two games, Colorado scored on its first two tries. Calgary nearly went ahead 1-0 early in the first when Mikael Backlund hit a post. After that, the Flames barely mustered any offence.
“We got down and we played high-risk hockey the rest of the night and they made us pay every time," Flames captain Mark Giordano said. "We gave up almost 60 shots. It was one mistake after another.
“We need to regroup. We know our compete level has to go up.”
The Flames have been scorched by the Avalanche’s top line of Gabriel Landeskog, MacKinnon and Mikko Rantanen. They combined for five points in the first period on Monday night, with MacKinnon also getting an assist on Makar’s goal. They have four goals and six assists now between them.
At the same time, the Flames high-powered first line has been nearly invisible. Johnny Gaudreau, who led Calgary with 36 goals and 63 assists in the regular season, has yet to find the net and has played poorly on defence. In three games, Gaudreau, Sean Monahan and Elias Lindholm have a goal and two assists among them.
“We got dominated for 60 minutes,” Lindholm said. “We know as a team and a line that we didn’t play that well.”
The Flames won Game 1 at home but missed an opportunity to go up 2-0 when they lost in overtime at the Saddledome on Saturday. They got shellacked on Monday night. They were outshot 56-28 and were assessed 50 minutes in penalties.
Sam Bennett, Matthew Tkachuk and Garnet Hathaway each had 10-minute conducts in the third period as their frustration level kept rising.
The Avalanche had a 31-10 lead in shots on goal before midway through the second period. They had 40 at the end of 40 minutes but Smith declined to sit out the third period when given the opportunity by Peters.
“He wanted to stay in and battle,” Peters said.
In the last two games, the 37-year-old goalie has been bombarded with 95 shots.
“They outworked us and outplayed us,” Smith said. “The great thing about the NHL playoffs is that a team needs to win four. It is playoff hockey. Everyone has to play better and give a little more."
The Flames were outshot and mostly outplayed Saturday and it was so much worse in Game 3. The Avalanche went up 4-0 in the second on a short-handed goal by Matt Nieto, and back ahead 5-1 on a goal by Rantanen. In between, Calgary finally cracked the scoreboard when a puck caromed off Sam Bennett’s skate past Colorado goalie Philipp Grubauer.
The Flames were not concerned when the series shifted to Colorado after finishing as one of the top road teams in the NHL during the regular season. They entered Monday night 6-3-1 in their past 10 games at the Pepsi Center.
They were steamrolled anyway.
The Avalanche finished the regular season by winning eight of their final 10 games. They are a highly skilled offensive team. Their top line of Landeskog, MacKinnon and Rantanen combined for 261 points during the regular season and accounted for 41 per cent of their team’s goals. They have skated circles around Calgary’s defencemen these past two games.
Makar, who was born in Calgary and rooted for the Flames as he grew up, was greeted with cheers by teammates when he joined them on the ice at Monday’s morning skate.
“It is a weird feeling playing against the team you grew up loving, but my allegiance lies with the Colorado Avalanche now,” Makar said surrounded by a crush of newsmen in the dressing room. “It is going to be an interesting feeling.”
Makar signed a three-year entry-level contract on Sunday after helping UMass reach Saturday’s NCAA championship game. He was the fourth player taken in the first round of the 2017 draft and just finished his sophomore season.
Beforehand, Makar said he was not nervous and looked forward to his first NHL game.
“You are going to feel a bunch of different emotions but you have to be prepared for that,” Makar said. “You kind of live your life to get to this moment. It will be a fun one.”
For the Flames, not so much.