GILBERTSON: Flames need their star forwards to play the part

DENVER — Especially coming from an opponent, this is a glowing review …

“Obviously, his skill and his talent speaks for itself. But he kind of has that mentality — he wants to win. He’s strong on the puck. He’s very aggressive. He takes it to the net. He makes players around him better. He is definitely not an easy guy to play against at all. He’s been a challenge for us so far in this series.”

That’s what the Calgary Flames — in this case, smooth-skating defenceman Noah Hanifin — were saying Tuesday about man-on-a-mission Nathan MacKinnon.

If the Colorado Avalanche aren’t soon saying similar things (or at least thinking them), about Johnny Gaudreau, the Flames might be in bigger trouble than a 2-1 series deficit shows.

MacKinnon has looked like a superstar in this first-round showdown.

Gaudreau, plain and simple, has not.

There is some blame to go around, too, because his sidekick Sean Monahan certainly hasn’t looked the part of first-line centre, either.

“Everyone has got to be better – not just one guy,” Gaudreau said Tuesday, playing better defence than any of the Flames had the previous night in a 6-2 drumming from MacKinnon and the Avalanche in Game 3 at Pepsi Center. “We’re a team here. We’re a team of 23 here, and all of us are going to be better next game. And that’s one of the things we talked about (Tuesday).”

The Flames need to turn talk into action … and soon.

After winning the series-opener at the Saddledome, they have been out-skated, outscored and outclassed by their opponents in back-to-back outings.

With three goals — including an overtime winner — and an assist already, MacKinnon looks hell-bent on carrying the underdog Avalanche to an upset over the top seed in the Western Conference.

Thanks to their depth, the Flames don’t need Gaudreau or Monahan to shoulder the entire load, but their pedestrian performance so far isn’t good enough.

Heading into Wednesday’s Game 4 at Pepsi Center (8 p.m., CBC/Sportsnet 960 The Fan), Gaudreau has just one measly assist in this series, and that came after one of his shots was blocked.

Monahan was the goal-scorer on that sequence and also added a helper on TJ Brodie’s way-too-little, way-too late tally in Monday’s trouncing.

The Flames’ dynamic duo did combine for a dangerous scoring chance in the second period of that one-sided shellacking, with Gaudreau spinning just inside the blue-line and spying his buddy, who couldn’t beat Philipp Grubauer on the blocker-side.

Trouble is, the Avs immediately turned up the ice and capitalized on an odd-man rush.

“Obviously, I haven’t gotten too many looks,” Gaudreau conceded after Tuesday’s team meetings in the Mile High City. “They’ve done a good job defensively. Last game, it felt like we were in the D zone most of the game, which was unfortunate.”

Imagine if you had introduced a new fan to hockey just as the puck dropped on this Rocky Mountain Matchup between the Flames and Avs …

You would have told them both teams are headlined by an electrifying forward who’d piled up 99 points during the regular season.

You would have mentioned the debate about which squad had the better first line.

Now, imagine asking them three games later if they could identify those offensive studs, if they could pinpoint those top trios.

MacKinnon would be a no-brainer.

And for the Flames? Would you call them crazy if they guessed Sam Bennett?

What’s especially worrisome for the crew from Calgary is that their leading men aren’t just suddenly struggling.

There have been too many silent nights since the all-star break/bye.

You can’t pin this predicament on only one or two guys, but Gaudreau and Monahan must become factors in this series before MacKinnon nudges the Flames into off-season mode.

“You have to take away his speed, make him stop whenever you can, especially through the neutral zone,” said Flames captain Mark Giordano of No. 29 for the other guys. “Obviously, he is one of the best players in the league for a reason, but his game is a speed game and he has been able to get through the neutral zone and get a lot of chances off the rush, it feels like, in the last couple games. We have to eliminate that.

“I think he’s a lot like (Connor) McDavid, with the way he can skate … He was definitely feeing it (Monday), but it’s on us to cut off his speed, take away his time and space. Way too much time out there for a really good player, and that’s when he hurts you.”

The Flames also have some guys who can really hurt you.

Time for them to show it.

“He’s a good player. He’s playing well right now,” Gaudreau said of MacKinnon. “Our line will probably be matched against him (Wednesday), so hopefully play in the O-zone a little more next game.”

Indeed, that would be a good place to start.

wgilbertson@postmedia.com

Twitter.com/WesGilbertson

***

Note from WSOE.Org : This content has been auto-generated from a syndicated feed.