Why Nathan MacKinnon, Mikko Rantanen and the Avalanche are no surprise team

DENVER—The brief message on social media from Colorado defenceman Nikita Zadorov was rhetorical in nature: “How is your bracket?”

Obviously, it’s pretty messy.

Calgary Flames left wing Johnny Gaudreau, right, hangs his head as time runs out on the team’s season against the Colorado Avalanche in Calgary on Friday. The Avalanche, who had to push just to get the last playoff berth in the Western Conference, beat the Flames 5-1 to complete a five-game series win.  (Larry MacDougal / THE CANADIAN PRESS)

The eighth-seeded Avalanche have played a big role in that. Colorado knocked off the Calgary Flames — the top team in the West — in five games for its first playoff series win since 2008. It’s on to the second round against the winner of the Vegas-San Jose series, which the Golden Knights lead 3-2.

While others may be surprised, Nathan MacKinnon and his teammates have been asserting that this post-season would be different. Unlike a year ago, they wouldn’t be content with merely making the playoffs. This time, they wanted to make some noise even if they again entered as an eight seed and faced No. 1.

“We’re not just happy to be here,” said MacKinnon, whose team was eliminated in the opening round by top-ranked Nashville in six games last year. “We’re here to win the Cup.”

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Flames goaltender Mike Smith called MacKinnon “a beast.”

“For anyone who doesn’t think MacKinnon is not one of the best if not the best, they might want to look at this series,” Flames captain Mark Giordano agreed. “He really took control and led their team.”

Colorado actually has been in playoff mode for about a month, needing to go 8-0-2 down the stretch to earn the last spot. Despite the Avalanche’s surge, they weren’t exactly a trendy pick to spring an upset on a Flames squad that amassed 107 points. But they outscored the Flames by a 17-11 margin and outshot them 205-164.

“Now we can rest before the second round,” forward Mikko Rantanen said Friday after a 5-1 win in Game 5. “That’s going to be huge.”

And just like that, another top seed exited. Tampa Bay, the Presidents’ Trophy winner with the league’s best record, got swept out of the playoffs by Columbus. Dating to expansion in 1967-68, this marks the first time the top two teams in each division or conference or the teams with the two best records have been eliminated in the opening round, according to the league.

“The season we had we were not expecting to go out in five games obviously in the first round,” Giordano said. “Right now it doesn’t feel good. We had a great season and we couldn’t find a way to get leads in the playoffs and stick to it when we did have the lead.

“It’s sour right now because a couple games we let slip away.”

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The NHL’s highest scoring team on home ice this season mustered only one goal Friday despite head coach Bill Peters juggling his lines in an attempt to spark the offence.

“Some of the strengths we had during the regular season weren’t strengths in round one,” Peters said. “I can’t explain it to you, why some of those went away. It’ll be interesting as we reflect and look back and try and find some answers.

“We tried to change some things lineup-wise, we tried to change some matchups a little bit on the MacKinnon line and we didn’t have an answer.”

Rantanen turned in quite a series with five goals and four assists. He has at least a point in four straight games, one away from tying the Quebec-Colorado franchise mark held set by Peter Stastny in 1982 and equalled by Peter Forsberg on three separate occasions.

This after Rantanen missed the last eight games of the regular season with an upper-body injury. He shook off some rust in Game 1 and then spent the rest of the series shaking free of defenders. He scored the overtime winner in Game 4.

“He came back and he looked amazing and dominated,” MacKinnon said. “It’s so nice to have a guy like that on your team.”

With files from The Canadian Press

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