CALGARY – There has been a lot of talk about secondary scoring in these parts lately, but the Calgary Flames were thinking exactly the same thing as everyone else was. And that is in order for this team to ultimately succeed down the stretch and in the playoffs, its top line had to stop making excuses and start scoring goals. In that sense, the Flames are no different than any other team in the NHL. So when the threesome of Elias Lindholm between Johnny Gaudreau and Sean Monahan accounted for five goals in a 9-4 win over the New Jersey Devils Tuesday night, the exhale from the fan base and organization was every bit as strong as a Chinook wind.
Consider this. The Flames’ top line scored one fewer goal at even strength (five) in 60 minutes Tuesday night than it had in the past 20 games combined. And it’s all well and good that Gaudreau had nine shots against the Vegas Golden Knights Sunday in a game that was saved by the second line, but the Flames are going nowhere if their top line does not produce. It’s incumbent upon that group to build on its success for the Flames to be competitive down the stretch and in the post-season.
You can talk all you want about bad puck luck. Or playing well in the defensive zone to make up for the lack of scoring. Or getting good looks. Or the fact that you’re facing the opponents’ shutdown forwards and defenseman. But at some point you simply have to produce, particularly when it’s against a Devils’ roster that, depleted by injuries, might have trouble competing at the American League level.
“It’s going to help for sure,” said Flames coach Bill Peters. “Your best players have to be your best players. They’re the guys who we primarily count on every night to generate offense and they’ve got to end up on the scoresheet. They have to.”
If you watch this game long enough, the majority of the time you come to the realization that you get the breaks you deserve. And that first line had not been getting many breaks, so it’s reasonable to assume that the unit had many nights not been playing with the level of commitment that would see it get breaks. And that’s entirely fair. Elias Lindholm, the most productive of the three players over the previous 20 games, did not mince words when he talked of the work of the top line leading into the game against the Devils.
“Obviously, we haven’t been great the past couple of weeks,” Lindholm said. “I think we were down for a couple of weeks and that was a little too long. If you do one or two bad games, it’s fine, but when you start doing three, four, five, six, seven, it’s not good. I think it came to the point where we were out there and didn’t want to have the puck and make plays and have fun. We have to keep telling each other to have fun and make plays.”
Three of the goals came off the stick of Gaudreau, who went into the game with two goals in his past 20. He chipped in with three assists to set a career high for points in a game and become the first player this season – and first since Jamie Benn in 2013 – to have a six-point game. And here’s the thing, he was hauled down on a partial breakaway and stopped on another. With a little more luck, he might have challenged Darryl Sittler’s record of 10 points in a game.
Gaudreau, who jumped from eighth place in NHL scoring into a tie with Sidney Crosby for fourth, claims he never doubted himself during the dry spell. And he shouldn’t have. With 12 games remaining, Gaudreau sits 10 points away from his first 100-point season in the NHL. He’s not sure whether he’s ever had a six-point game, but is pretty sure if it happened it would have been in minor hockey where his father, Guy, was his coach and would regularly ice a lineup of two lines and four defensemen.
“It’s a hard league to play in,” Gaudreau said, “so it was nice to get rewarded.”
Indeed it was for the Flames and their fans. And they’re going to need more of the same if they want to experience a long playoff run.