Flames bid for revenge in opener against AvalancheReuters | Calgary | Updated: 03-10-2019 06:48 IST | Created: 03-10-2019 06:45 IST
The Calgary Flames entered the playoffs last season with eyes on the franchise's first Stanley Cup title in 30 years. They were the top seed in the Western Conference, tied for the second-most goals in the NHL and had the second-best goal differential in the league. The Flames' aspirations, however, were extinguished in the first round by the eighth-seeded Colorado Avalanche in six games.
Calgary returns to the site where its season ended as the Flames visit Denver on Thursday to face the Avalanche in the season opener for both teams. Calgary returns most of the same roster it had last season, including forward Matthew Tkachuk, who signed a three-year, $21 million deal last week just ahead of the start of the season.
Tkachuk, a rising star in the league, said he wants to win with the Flames and was happy to have the contract signed. "Having the finish we had last year made it even more clear to me that I want to win with this group," Tkachuk said last week. "I want to win in Calgary."
Tkachuk was a key piece for the 107-point Flames team last season. The Flames will face arguably the best top line in the NHL. Colorado's three young, exciting stars -- center Nathan MacKinnon, captain Gabriel Landeskog and Mikko Rantanen -- helped the club reach the playoffs in consecutive seasons for the first time since 2006.
Rantanen, a restricted free agent this summer, missed most of the training camp before signing a six-year, $55.5 million contract last week. General manager Joe Sakic improved the second line when he acquired Nazem Kadri from Toronto this summer, but he sent his best scoring defenseman in Tyson Barrie and forward Alexander Kerfoot to the Maple Leafs in the deal.
Sakic also acquired forward Andre Burakovsky from the Washington Capitals and signed free agents, Joonas Donskoi, Pierre-Edouard Bellemare and Valeri Nichushkin to add depth on the lines. Colorado will have a mix of youth and experience on defense, with rookie Cale Makar, 20, and third-year player Samuel Girard, 21, expected to see plenty of playing time.
Makar has yet to play an NHL regular-season game but he has playoff experience. Makar won the Hobey Baker Award as a sophomore at the University of Massachusetts, and he was on the ice against the Flames just two days after playing the NCAA title game. Makar finished with a goal and five assists in 10 playoff games and now gets to experience the NHL regular season.
"I'm excited, ready to go," Makar said Wednesday. "I'm looking ahead to the game and not much else to it." The one major injury for Colorado is to defenseman Ian Cole (hip), who will start the season in the injured list.
Calgary, meanwhile, is confident center Mikael Backlund will be able to play. He left Saturday's preseason game against the Edmonton Oilers with a lower-body injury, sat out practice Tuesday but was back on the ice Wednesday before the team left for Colorado. Head coach Bill Peters told reporters on Wednesday that will put center Scott Bennett on the top line if Backlund can't play.
"I think he's real close, but we've got to be smart, too," Peters said. "It's an easy little switch, we know what we're going to do if he can't go, so it's not like it'll be a last-minute decision."