A key to which squad comes out on top of their Western Conference opening-round Stanley Cup playoff series that kicks off Thursday in Calgary will be the one that isn't held in check.
While the Flames have their share of firepower -- they are the lone playoff squad that boasts five players with at least 70 points, Johnny Gaudreau, Sean Monahan, Elias Lindholm, Matthew Tkachuk and Mark Giordano -- the Avalanche's top line of Nathan MacKinnon, Mikko Rantanen and Gabriel Landeskog is as formidable as any trio ion the league. They netted 106 of the team's 258 goals.
"Stay on top of them and limit their space," Flames center Mikael Backlund told Postmedia of the strategy to keep their opponent's top line in check. "Those guys are really good off the rush. Good skaters. I think the key is having good reloads from when they get the puck in their D-zone and our O-zone and just really good backchecks."
Rantanen missed the final eight regular-season games due to injury but is expected to play when the Calgary series begins.
As much as the series winner may be decided by which top line is held down, it also may be determined by which one is more prolific. The Flames, who won the Western Conference crown with a 50-25-7 record, captured all three regular-season meetings between the clubs by a combined 14-10 score.
In those games, MacKinnon scored twice, Rantanen had a goal and two assists, and Landeskog had one goal and three assists. The Flames simply compiled more offense.
"Calgary's a real good team, we have to respect that and respect what they've done," Avalanche coach Jared Bednar told NHL.com. "They have 107 points, they ran away with the Western Conference. They're (tied for) second in goals for, top 10 in goals against. They got superstar players... We have to be ready to go and play our best, we know that."
Colorado, which finished with a 38-30-14 mark, was six points out of a playoff spot on St. Patrick's Day but roared into the playoffs by winning eight of its final 11 games -- the lone regulation-time defeat coming in a meaningless finale.
"Look around the league, some teams are kind of sputtering in or whatever, and that is not the case for us, we are playing some really good hockey right now," Avalanche defenseman Tyson Barrie said. "Our last 10 games have kind of been like playoff games with so much on the line. We are a confident group, we feel like we are playing really good hockey."
While the Flames do boast the deeper squad, they also have to cope with the bigger expectations, having won their first conference championship in 29 years and going up against the eighth seed.
"We don't feel the pressure, if there is any," Flames coach Bill Peters countered. "We see it as an opportunity. To play in the postseason is exciting. ...
"The clock's ticking. You want to win. You want to get deep in the playoffs and you want to win a Stanley Cup at some point in your career, so why not try and get it done as soon as you can, which is now? The opportunity is right there in front of us."
--Field Level Media
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