Most of the talk through three games of playoff Battle of Alberta between the Calgary Flames and Edmonton Oilers has been about the loaded top line of Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl, and Evander Kane.
Trailing 2-1 after their worst loss of these playoffs on Sunday, the Flames are trying to return their focus to what got them to the second round of the NHL playoffs in the first place.
“People have done a pretty good job of talking about (the Oilers stars). And rightly so, they’ve done a great job. They’ve had a good playoffs so far. But I think we have to look at the big picture and look at ourselves and what we can do and what we do well,” Calgary Flames associate coach Kirk Muller.
“I think if we do that, we’ll have a different outcome. We’re really focused on our group right now.”
It may help that the Flames played a fairly strong third period. They scored their only goal of the night and allowed none against with backup goalie Dan Vladar in net.
The first two periods of Game 3 were a train wreck.
Jacob Markstrom had to make more than 20 saves in the first 20 minutes. Then he was lit up by four straight Oilers goals, including a natural hat-trick for Evander Kane.
All of them were of the highlight-reel variety. Odd-man rushes predominantly orchestrated by McDavid, who has rightly earned all of the praise being thrown his way in the playoffs and in this series.
Draisaitl finished with four assists. Kane had the three goals.
“Special players” putting Flames on heels
“Let’s be honest, they’re special players. We have to respect those players, but we also have to play on our toes, play aggressive and play our game,” said Muller.
“When we do, we’re a good hockey club. We have to be excited to have the opportunity to play
against these guys and not play on our heels against them.”
Despite an evenly matched regular season, the Calgary Flames seem to adopt a different personality against their provincial rival. Their defensive/goaltending stats are way down against the Oilers compared to the way they perform against the rest of the league. That has followed them into the playoffs in their first meeting in 31 years.
“Give up four-plus goals the first three games, that’s not a very good trait, especially when we were the second-best defensive team in the league this year,” said Calgary Flames winger Milan Lucic.
“We’ve got to just focus on what we need to do as a group and what our foundation is and what our identity is in order to get it to our game.”
Possession critical to Flames success
Their identity has been a hard-working, detail-oriented team that plays a physical brand of hockey with an emphasis on checking and puck possession
“Maybe our focus has been a little bit too much on the Oilers and kind of started playing their game a little more than we’ve wanted to play our game,” said Lucic, who avoided further discipline Monday for his controversial collision with Oilers goalie Mike Smith.
“If we have the puck, they can’t make the plays.”
The Flames can’t possess the puck for the entire game. It’s inevitable that McDavid and his talented teammates will get their chances. But the Flames have had their success this season by playing their brand of hockey regardless of opponent. It worked against guys like Alex Ovechkin, Artemi Panarin, and other league superstars.
“I think it’s important that we dial in with our team. That’s been the strength of our team all year. Our identity of working together. Everyone doing their part, everyone being responsible in their roles when they’re on the ice,” said Muller. “We did it all year. It’s not about the opponent that you play, it’s about what we do.
“I’m confident in our group that we’ll rebound. They’ve been doing it all year.”