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Pacific Division Notebook: Then There Was One

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Only one Pacific team remains as we get set to open the second round of the Western Conference playoffs. Gone are the Vegas Golden Knights and Calgary Flames, both suffering first round heartbreak in different ways.

For the Flames, it was a complete disappointment that featured little fight and no-show performances from some of their top players. For Vegas, it was an epic collapse on top of an epic collapse, giving Golden Knights fans their first true taste of how miserable this sport can be.

What now for these two clubs that expected so much more this postseason?

Vegas’ Heartbreak:

It looked like a forgone conclusion a week ago that Vegas was going to win this series against the San Jose Sharks. That’s the cruelty of playoff hockey, where not even a 3-1 series lead can be considered safe. Vegas dominated Game 6 at home, but Martin Jones stole one on the road for San Jose and that’s all she wrote.

To add insult to injury, the Knights had a 3-0 lead with just 10 minutes remaining in regulation time last night, but a bad penalty call resulted in four (!) powerplay goals  against and eventual defeat. It was painful, and this one will stick with everyone associated with the Knights all summer long.

I think George McPhee, who is no stranger to playoff heartbreak, is smart and level-headed. That’s great news for Vegas fans because I don’t think he will do anything rash. Vegas invested heavily in their forward group with the free agent signing of Paul Stastny last July and the trades that brought Max Pacioretty and Mark Stone to town. They don’t need to do much up front, and I don’t think they will panic and change that group.

Defense, however, is where I think you will see changes. Nate Schmidt and Brayden McNabb are solid top-four options, but can you really count on Deryk Engelland and Jon Merrill for consistent minutes? Colin Miller seemed to fall out of favor during the season as well.

If Erik Karlsson hits free agency, I’d wager that Vegas will be the most aggressive pursuer on the market. If they miss out, don’t rule out a trade with Nashville that sends PK Subban to Vegas. There seems to be an appetite to move Subban’s contract and he’d be the perfect add for a team like Vegas.

Outside of an addition on defense, which I suspect is coming, there really won’t be a lot of change with this team. There doesn’t need to be, either. For my money, Vegas was the better team for large stretches of their series with the Sharks, but Martin Jones buckled down for San Jose and Vegas’ PK killed them in Game 7. The Golden Knights are essentially a playoff lock next season, and don’t need major surgery.

Off the ice, I’d expect just one loss. Assistant GM Kelly McCrimmon is as good as gone in my opinion. He’ll either be the GM in Edmonton or Seattle, and if I had to wager I’d bet he takes over the Oilers before the calendar flips to May.

Shot Down In Flames:

Sure, Tampa Bay getting swept was shocking. The best team in the league going home in the first round was a result that almost no one expected. The Flames losing in five, to a Colorado team that wouldn’t have made the playoffs out east? Almost as shocking in my opinion.

I had serious questions about Calgary’s Stanley Cup hopes because of Mike Smith, but he was actually strong in this series. Smith kept Calgary in Games 3 and 4 for large stretches, but it just wasn’t enough. It’s vastly disappointing that Calgary’s biggest weakness was actually their biggest strength in this series.

Johnny Gaudreau, Sean Monahan, Elias Lindholm and Michael Frolik have all been strong contributors for this Calgary team since day one, but they all failed to show up for this playoff series. They got pushed around and never responded to an Avs team that beat them up AND outskilled them.

It’s tough to examine what should be next for the Flames. Smith played well, but it would be unwise to extended the inconsistent veteran netminder. After all, Smith was not very good during the course of the regular season.

Defensively the Flames will have some questions to answer too. Travis Hamonic was nonexistent during the opening round of the playoffs, while Mark Giordano is not getting any younger. How will the Flames proceed at the position, likely knowing Giordano will be in tough to repeat his phenomenal season.

Offensively the best thing the Flames can do it not listen to Eric Francis, who took a torch to Gaudreau on Sportsnet.ca on Tuesday. Gaudreau wasn’t good this postseason, but he is one of the most dynamic players in the NHL. Don’t do anything foolish when it comes to him or anyone in this young core.

I suspect James Neal will return next season, no one is touching that contract, but I wonder about Frolik. He was nearly dealt at the deadline to Minnesota and the Flames believe they need help when it comes to depth scoring. I wouldn’t be shocked if they circled back to a Jason Zucker deal with the Wild.

Final Thoughts:

The Flames’ opening round loss is the biggest shocker out west. They were the better team all season long and the better team on paper. For them to be run over like they were is a massive disappointment. Vegas’ heartbreak hurts, but they can at least take solace in the fact that they were arguably the better team during the course of the series.

San Jose is the last team standing in the Pacific, and will have a chance to avenge the Flames next round when they meet Colorado. We’ll take a look at that series tomorrow when my predictions are posted.

Photo Credit: By mark6mauno [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Alex is a 2016 graduate of Springfield College who is currently a writer with Boston Hockey Now and The Oilers Rig. Outside of writing, you can find Alex in rinks around New England as the Play-by-Play voice of the USPHL’s Boston Junior Bruins. In addition, he does broadcasting work for Northeastern University, Holy Cross And UMass-Lowell. Reach him on Twitter: @Alex_Thomas14

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