Flames Thoughts: Calgary’s 1st line is on fire

Johnny Gaudreau had a goal and an assist as the Calgary Flames took down the Tampa Bay Lightning 5-1.

With four unanswered goals in the second and third periods, the Calgary Flames stretched their season-long winning streak to five games with an impressive 5-1 victory over the league-leading Tampa Bay Lightning at Amalie Arena in Tampa on Thursday.

STRONG START

For the third straight game, the Flames scored first. As a matter of fact, for the third consecutive contest, Micheal Ferland opened the scoring. The rugged and skilled right-winger extended his goal and point streaks to four games when he one-timed a Sean Monahan pass past Andrei Vasilevskiy just 29 seconds into the first period. The Flames seem to feed off of goals more than most teams do, so tallying less than 30 seconds into the game was a great way to get the party started versus the league-leading Lightning.

The Flames are now 15-4-2 when scoring first this season.

FIRST LINE ON FIRE

After a good month of October and a great month of November, the Flames’ first line of Monahan, Johnny Gaudreau and Ferland has looked fantastic early in the month of January. Last month, the threesome produced a total of 23 points in 14 games. This month, the trio has already accumulated 22 points in four games. Incredible. On Thursday, Gaudreau and Monahan stretched their assist and point streaks to five games with assists on Ferland’s 19th goal of the season. A little later on, Gaudreau snapped a season-long 10-game goalless streak with his 14th tally of 2017-18.

All three players have been doing what they do best since getting off the schneid in the Flames’ 4-3 overtime triumph over the Chicago Blackhawks on New Year’s Eve. Monahan has been finding soft spots in front of his opponents’ net and using his lethal shot. Gaudreau has looked like one of the league’s elite playmakers. Ferland has played like a high-end power forward. It’s tough to win when your best players aren’t your best players, which explains why the Flames struggled to win in December. The Flames have yet to lose in January and the superb play of their top line is one of the main reasons why.

STICKIN’ IT TO HIS OLD TEAM

Mike Smith was marvellous versus the Lightning, stopping 33 of 34 shots for his 19th win of the season. When I spoke to Matt Stajan after the game, I asked the veteran Flames forward what the turning point in Thursday’s tilt was. He told me that it was Smith’s stop on Lightning forward Cedric Paquette on a penalty shot 5:15 into the second period. After tying the game 31 seconds into the middle stanza, the Lightning looked poised to take the game over when Paquette was awarded a penalty shot after being pulled down by defenceman Mark Giordano on a partial breakaway. But, as he has done so many times this season, Smith made a big save when his team needed him to. With all due respect to Vegas Golden Knights goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury, Smith has been the Flames’ MVP this season and deserves to be an all-star.

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SPECIAL TEAMS SUCCESS

Teams that win the special-teams battle win games way more often than they lose. The Flames were 1-for-1 on the power play and 3-for-3 on the penalty kill on Thursday. The Flames snapped an 0-for-12 streak on the PP. On the other side of special teams, the Flames’ PK has now killed off 16 consecutive opposition power plays. The PK has been good for quite some time. The PP has been the Flames’ biggest Achilles heel of late. Maybe, just maybe, Sam Bennett’s power-play goal against the Lightning will get it going.

IMPORTANT WIN

While I don’t think Thursday’s win was the Flames’ biggest of 2017-18, I do think it was their most impressive. Because the game was against an out-of-conference opponent, I still think last Saturday’s victory over the Anaheim Ducks, a squad that has owned the Flames for years and is one of the teams that they are fighting with for a playoff spot, was the biggest for Glen Gulutzan’s group so far this season. With that said, in my humble opinion, Thursday’s win was the Flames’ most impressive, for a few reasons.

1. The Lightning have been the best team in the NHL this season. First in goals for. Third in goals against. The league’s leading goal-scorer in Nikita Kucherov and two top point-producers in him and Steven Stamkos. I could go on and on and on. Assuming stud defenceman Victor Hedman, who left Thursday’s game with a lower body injury in the second period, didn’t return, and who I saw wearing a walking boot after the game, isn’t out long term, the Lightning are my pick to win the Stanley Cup.

2. The Bolts skate as fast and play as fast as any team in the NHL. Going into the game, I wondered if the Flames could keep up. Most teams can’t. Coming out of the contest, I have no doubt that when the Flames play their best they can compete with any team in the league.

3. After blowing two-goal third-period leads in their last two games, I couldn’t help but wonder if it would be déjà vu all over again versus the high-powered Lightning. Unlike last Saturday’s game against the Ducks, a 3-2 win, and Tuesday’s contest versus the Wild, a 3-2 overtime victory, the Flames didn’t sit on their lead in the final frame on Thursday. Not only did the Flames go into lockdown mode defensively, they continued to create chances offensively, counter-attacking the ultra-aggressive Lightning to add to their lead. After his team played in eight straight one-goal games, hopefully Thursday’s four-goal thumping of the Lightning turned a few of Glen Gulutzan’s grey hairs blonde again.