CALGARY -- The foothills of the Rocky Mountains are a majestic sight on the distant horizon west of Calgary. The snow-capped peaks are also symbolic today, given the impossible climb the Calgary Flames faced in their bid not to be buried by the Colorado Avalanche.
The Flames ultimately fizzled in the blizzard of the Avalanche in their Western Conference First Round series, with a 5-1 Game 5 loss at Scotiabank Saddledome on Friday sending them meekly into the offseason after they had finished with the best record in the conference.
Colorado's remarkable series win, combined with the Columbus Blue Jackets' stunning sweep of the Tampa Bay Lightning, who had the best record in the Eastern Conference, made history. Never since the NHL adopted its current best-of-7 Stanley Cup Playoff format in 1986-87 had the top teams in each conference not survived the first round.
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"It [stinks]," Flames forward Sean Monahan said in a subdued dressing room. "We had a good team here. I mean, we didn't show it here through the five games and that cost us."
Monahan was expected to be an offensive force, but managed just two points (one goal, one assist). Linemate Johnny Gaudreau's production was even less -- just one assist.
"I didn't find the net when I should have a couple times throughout the series," Gaudreau said in almost a whisper. "We had high expectations for ourselves, a great regular season. We kind of played a little flat-footed there in a couple games and now the season is over."
Indeed, it's a stunning end for the Flames, whose 50-25-7 regular-season record was second only to the Lightning's (62-16-4). Calgary was bounced by a Colorado team whose 38-30-14 record was 17th in the NHL.
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The Flames' only victory this series, in the 30th anniversary season of their only Stanley Cup championship, was their 4-0 Game 1 win. It was the 100th playoff win in their history, a milestone that is no consolation in Calgary.
Twice this season the Flames lost four consecutive games, but never was it fatal. There was no luxury of having the opportunity to rebound from a loss on Friday, and Calgary is now 0-9 when trailing a best-of-7 series 3-1.
"Right now it doesn't feel good," captain Mark Giordano said. "We have a great group of guys in here, we had a great season. 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. A couple games we let slip away. Nights like today it felt like nothing was going in for us, and they were burying [their chances]."
Goalie Mike Smith was Calgary's best player, by far, throughout the five games. After making 26 saves for a Game 1 shutout, Smith faced a barrage of Avalanche shots -- 39, 56, 52 and 32 in the next four games.
"Training all summer, battle through an exhibition season, regular season, put in a ton of work [and] as you get older these opportunities diminish, they get shorter for you," Smith said. "It's definitely disappointing. …
"The regular season means nothing other than you have to make it into the playoffs. Everybody that makes it in is an NHL playoff team. They deserve to be in there."
Video: Lightning, Flames eliminated from playoffs early
What was supposed to be a showcase for Colorado's Nathan MacKinnon and Calgary's Gaudreau, both arriving at the series off NHL career-best 99-point seasons, was in the end a one-man show. MacKinnon had eight points (three goals, five assists), including the overtime winner in Game 2.
Gaudreau had his chances on Friday: He stickhandled himself into a missed penalty shot and fired wide on a breakaway, both in the first period, then had an apparent goal waved off in the second because of incidental goalie contact.
Everywhere in the Flames room you heard praise for MacKinnon, "a beast," in Smith's words, "up there (as a Connor) McDavid-level type of player," in the opinion of forward Matthew Tkachuk.
"For anyone who doesn't think that MacKinnon is one of the best, if not the best, they might want to look at the series," Giordano said. "He can really turn it on up to another level. He's a tough player to play against. I thought he really took control and led their team."
The Flames will, or won't, continue to marvel at MacKinnon's play, and that of linemates Gabriel Landeskog and Mikko Rantanen in the second round of the playoffs. That line combined for a formidable 21 points in the first round (nine goals, 12 assists).
"It sits with you for the rest of the playoffs," Gaudreau said of the immediate sting of the crashing end of the season. "You hear about other teams playing games. You're obviously watching. This sits with you until the end of playoffs. It will be a long couple of months. Hopefully we learn from this and come back next year."
For Monahan, there would be no video study needed to figure out why the season was done.
"You've got to produce," he said, shrugging. "Your top guys have to be your top guys in the postseason, and we didn't do that. They played better than us."