CALGARY — A back-trick hat-trick, and a Backlund backbreaker, got the Calgary Flames back in the conversation as one of the NHL’s best outfits Thursday.
Okay, sorry, let’s back it up for a second.
Facing a Tampa Bay Lightning squad that won back-to-back Stanley Cups, the Flames used a back-door approach to solve the world’s best backstop.
As the Flames continue to find ways to win games, Johnny Gaudreau’s first two of three goals were bank-shots off the behind of Tampa Bay netminder Andrei Vasilevskiy, begging the question: did he do well in his trigonometry tests in high school?
“No, I didn’t do good on any test in high school,” beamed Gaudreau after extending his seven-game point streak in his team’s 4-1 win at the Saddledome.
“The first goal he was kind of out of his net, and wasn’t on the post, so I tried to bank it off his butt there. The second one was pure luck. I just threw it right back in front of the net and it hit his hip or something and bounced in.”
As far as tests go, this one was as big as the Flames have passed since Sunday’s overtime win in Colorado.
Surely the rest of the league is taking notice of a deep, talented squad that is pulling away from the Pacific Division thanks to a 15-2-1 run.
Their latest win saw the strength of the Flames penalty-killing unit, which helped the hosts cling to an early 1-0 lead despite six minutes of shorthanded play in which Jacob Markstrom was every bit as spectacular as Vasilevskiy.
With one minute left in the second period Gaudreau scored an almost identical goal from behind the goal line, followed by a Mikael Backlund redirection 52 seconds later — a combination Darryl Sutter referred to as a “deep cut.”
The Flames held the Lightning to five shots in the third before Gaudreau completed his sixth career hat trick.
“It’s awesome, it’s a really cool feeling,” said Gaudreau of a moment that saw a crowd of 15,689 litter the ice with hats before breaking into chants of, “John-ny, John-ny.”
“It’s an even cooler feeling when the whole fans are chanting your name. It’s pretty special. I don’t take those for granted. It was a pretty cool moment there.”
The Flames are in the midst of a pretty cool moment too, as Sutter’s structure has helped build this team into a legitimate Cup contender.
But don’t tell Sutter, Markstrom or anyone else in the organization that.
“It’s always fun to play the teams that are in the top and they’re a team that has been at the top for a long time,” said Markstrom, who finished with 30 saves to hand the Bolts their second-straight regulation loss for the first time this season.
“But it’s still two points, nothing more or nothing less.”
It’s that mentality that has done well to ensure the Flames don’t get complacent — a trap they’ve fallen into with this core before.
Earlier in the day, when Sutter was asked about the NHL’s model franchise, he raved about their ability to combine skill with size — something the Flames have done well to emulate this season.
“They’ve been getting credit for lots of offence but they’re going to pound you into the ice, they’re going to push your goalie out of the game if they can,” said Sutter.
The Flames did well to respond to Tampa’s brawn with plenty of their own.
Late in the evening the Lightning took exception to a Sean Monahan crosscheck on Steven Stamkos that prompted Tampa’s captain to later drop the gloves and start throwing punches while the Flames veteran refused to respond in kind.
Former Lightning stalwart Blake Coleman exhibited some grit after taking a puck to the face late in the proceedings, only to return to the bench with four minutes left with a stitched-up eye and split open lip.
“That’s normal for champions,” said Sutter.
There was nothing normal about how Gaudreau scored, although it was clear the 26-goal scorer fully intended both bank shots.
“It’s a tough play… Johnny was quick-thinking to throw it right away, before (Vasilevskiy) can get inside his posts there,” Markstrom said. “That’s a goal scorer’s goal and it was a huge goal for us tonight. Two of them.”