Flames keep Avalanche in check, but recent PK struggles prove costly

CALGARY — Darryl Sutter has spoken often of late about how time and space are at such a premium this time of year.

As the games mean more, the rink gets smaller.

Hearts have to grow bigger and mistakes need to be reduced.

That springtime transformation was on full display Tuesday at the Saddledome where the two best teams in the west fought for every square inch.

A visit from the league-best Colorado Avalanche produced a significantly tighter game than Saturday’s 14-goal Battle of Alberta.

On this night the two juggernauts barely allowed one another to produce 14 high danger chances between the two.

Just the way Sutter likes it.

What he didn’t like were the penalties that cost them the game, namely an Elias Lindholm tripping penalty behind Colorado’s net that wound up contributing to the Flames’ ultimate demise midway through the third.

“It’s 1-1 in the third and we take a penalty 200 feet from our goalie — difference in the teams, right?” said the Flames coach, whose penalty killers failed on two of three opportunities.

“If you just break it all out, 5-on-5 for the year we’ve actually scored more goals than them. But if you look in the odd-man stuff, even tonight, two power play goals for them. It’s the difference in the game. We’re not at their calibre.”

Valeri Nichushkin took advantage of Lindholm’s miscue with his second power play goal of the game, converting a slick, no-look pass from Mikko Rantanen past Jacob Markstrom to give the visitors a 2-1 lead they wouldn’t relinquish.

What we saw from that point on was textbook shut-down hockey you’d expect from a team sitting 12 points ahead of everyone in the conference.

The Avs won the rubber match in the three-game series without captain Gabriel Landeskog and leader Nathan MacKinnon, who left the team in Calgary to have an upper-body injury (read: his hand) looked at by doctors in Denver following a Sunday night fight in Minnesota with Matt Dumba.

Much like their last meeting, when Darcy Kuemper made 46-saves in a 3-0 win, the Avalanche relied heavily on their netminder who made 44 stops Tuesday, allowing Tyler Toffoli to open the scoring midway through the second on a two-man advantage.

“It’s a 2-1 game, it can’t get any closer than that,” said Sutter, who was critical of the league’s third-ranked penalty-killing unit, which has now allowed an uncharacteristic five power play goals in their last two games.

“Sloppy. Two games were very sloppy. Individual mistakes. First one tonight should go down the ice. Had two cracks at it. The second one is a straight read by our defenceman. Those are mental mistakes. No excuse for it.”

Chris Tanev said the key to shoring up their shorthanded play is to work harder and as a more cohesive unit, which this group has proven all season long it is capable of doing.

Asked if he’d like a crack at the Avs in the playoffs Mikael Backlund was obviously keen.

“That means we’re both in the conference final, which would be a huge accomplishment for us, and them as well,” he said.

“It would be a great series and we’d love to get some revenge from 2018-19 when they outplayed us (and knocked the top-ranked Flames out of the playoffs in five games). We did outplay them that season, so hope to turn things around (on them) this year.”

The game marked a return to the lineup for Sean Monahan who spent the previous two outings as a healthy scratch for the first time in his career.

His response was noteworthy, as the fourth line center won nine of his 12 faceoffs, drew a first period penalty and even threw his body around a bit more than normal in just under 10 minutes of play.

“He was solid,” said Sutter.

“I’m not going to converse about a player who goes in and out of the lineup. If you are in a platoon situation, then make an impact. Otherwise you’re just a platoon, doesn’t matter who it is.”

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