DENVER (AP) — The Colorado Avalanche and Calgary Flames have never crossed paths in the playoffs.
Not in the days of Joe Sakic or Jarome Iginla (who later would become an Avalanche player). Not in the tenure of Bob Hartley (he coached both, including the Avalanche to a Stanley Cup title in 2000-01).
The first time certainly figures to be an edge-of-your-seat affair: Both teams are quick in transition and can fly up and down the ice. The Flames were 3-0 against the Avalanche this season and outscored them by a 14-10 margin, including a game on Nov. 1 in which they trailed 4-1 and scored five straight in the third to earn a 6-5 win.
Game 1 of what could be a track meet will be Thursday in Calgary .
”Both teams can skate. Both teams can make plays, have an in-your-face style,” Avalanche coach Jared Bednar said. ”So we have to be prepared for that.”
The Flames are coming off a season in which they accumulated 107 points to secure the top seed in the West. The last time they had at least that many points was 1988-89, when they won the Stanley Cup title over Patrick Roy and the Montreal Canadiens.
It’s a Calgary squad that features the likes of top scorer Johnny Gaudreau and a deep core of defensemen led by 35-year-old Mike Giordano . Coach Bill Peters hasn’t announced if he will start 26-year-old David Rittich or 37-year-old Mike Smith in net.
As for the pressure of being the top team in the West, the Flames insist they aren’t feeling any.
”We’re not worried about what others are saying,” Sean Monahan said on the team’s website. ”We’re worried about this group in here.”
Colorado was in desperation mode down the stretch thanks to an extended rough patch that started around Christmas. The Avalanche regrouped, weathered some injuries and locked up the No. 8 seed for a second straight season.
Last season against Nashville, they were simply glad to get in (the Avs lost in six games).
This season, they want to make some noise.
”We gave Nashville a lot of respect,” Nathan MacKinnon said. ”We’re going to give a little less respect and try to win the series.”
This provides a big boost: Mikko Rantanen, who’s been out since suffering an upper-body injury on March 21, will return to the lineup. In addition, Philipp Grubauer has found his groove while stepping in for Semyon Varlamov. Grubauer went 7-0-2 over his last nine starts.
Colorado is led on the offensive end by MacKinnon, who had 99 points this season – the same number as Gaudreau. In addition, Tyson Barrie ranked among the highest-scoring NHL defensemen with 59 points.
Now, it’s time to take it up another level. What exactly that entails, captain Gabriel Landeskog can’t quite explain.
”Maybe that’s exactly what it is – everything changes,” said Landeskog, who set an Avalanche record with 20 third-period goals. ”Everything is that much more intense.”
Things to know before the two teams meet in the postseason for the first time:
AGE IS JUST A NUMBER: At 35, Giordano is coming off a regular season in which he was an NHL-best plus-39. He’s a contender for the Norris Trophy, which goes to the top defensive player. ”We have a good group in here, a really good team,” Giordano said. ”We’ve got to bring that confidence into Game 1.”
BEARDED WONDER: The playoffs haven’t even started and Sam Bennett already has an impressive beard. ”I shaved this morning and it already came back,” Bennett cracked. ”I have a bit of a head start on this one.” He may shave it down to a mustache.
BACK IN ACTION: Colorado defenseman Erik Johnson had to watch the playoffs last season after hurting his knee. It was a painful blow after helping build the team back into a contender. ”I love playing for this team, this city and organization, so I put a lot of onus on my shoulders,” said Johnson. ”It feels good to go back-to-back in the playoffs for the first time in a long time.”
BRING ON THE NOISE: Colorado is bracing for the noise inside the Scotiabank Saddledome. ”We’ve seen some loud buildings in the playoffs,” Landeskog said. ”Every single building is loud in the playoffs. It’s going to be a lot of fun.”
FINISHING STRONG: Colorado went 8-0-2 late in the season to clinch a spot. Calgary closed out the regular season 9-5 after dropping four straight. ”We did a good job toward the end of the season, fought through a little stretch where we weren’t playing our best hockey and had a great finish to the year,” Gaudreau said on Calgary’s website. ”We’re excited to get the playoffs going.”