CALGARY — They have become one of the safest 25 minutes in hockey, a tandem that many across the league really can’t tell you much about.
The undrafted Mark Giordano, who has long since become an elite NHL defenceman. And T.J. Brodie, a fourth-round pick plucked off the family farm near Chatham Ont., who is becoming a genuine No. 1 defenceman in his own right.
They’re Keith and Seabrook good right now, of Doughty and Muzzin pedigree, and have become the caboose of a Calgary team that simply doesn’t spend enough time in its own zone to lose many games these days. With a modicum of goaltending
“When they’re on their game, we’re winning games. They really drive our team,” said winger Sam Bennett, after a dominant 3-1 win over the Tampa Bay Lightning Tuesday evening. “Our whole team relies on them. It’s how you win championships, with (pairs) like that.”
On a team that was having trouble scoring, Giordano (4-7-11) and Brodie (seven assists) have turned up the offence over the past eight games. That’s 18 points in eight games from two defenceman who give head coach Bob Hartley 25 minutes every night — and Brodie really doesn’t see much power-play time, at 2:35 per night.
Giordano, we know about. He would have been a Norris Trophy favourite last year had he not been injured, and missed the final 21 games of the regular season.
Brodie, they’re well aware of here. Soon enough, the rest of the National Hockey League will be aware as well.
“I think he’s the best defenceman in the league at creating deception,” said Giordano, who went on to explain that quote when asked. “So, other teams are forechecking. He’ll spin off them, look like he’s going to pass one way, and then skate it the other (way). He’ll basically break the puck out himself.
“Offensively, on the blue-line, he’s really good at fakes and opening up lanes for other guys. I benefit a lot from that — he opens lanes for me and I am able to get shots.”
Watch Brodie play from above, with Giordano’s explanation in mind, and you can see it plain as day. The entire forecheck shades to the left wing boards as his body language, his stick, and his eyes steer them that way.
Then, he jerks back to the right wing. There, he has an open lane to pass to a winger, who now has so much more time to collect the puck and make a play of his own.
“It’s so much easier than rimming it around the boards and having a winger trying to pound it out,” said winger David Jones. “Brods, the way he cuts back… I don’t think he ever makes the first play. He pulls a guy in, pulls back, and creates a play somewhere else.”
Gone is the end-to-end rush of the ‘80s. Coaches have devised systems that make it impossible for a defenceman to carry a puck through three zones — or even two — on a consistent basis. The new age defenceman furnishes his forwards with clean pucks in stride. The play doesn’t slow down as the puck moves from defence to offence; opposing defenders, seeing a tape-to-tape pass in stride, are less likely to step up and more apt to back peddle.
Now you’ve won the gap battle, a little thing that’s not so little anymore in the game.
This is how Calgary did things last season that were deemed unsustainable. They have two human zone exits on their first pairing, and a second pair that includes Kris Russell and Dougie Hamilton. Now Dennis Wideman, who knows how to move a puck, is a third-pairing guy with power-play time.
“And whenever we miss an assignment,” adds head coach Bob Hartley, “Karri Ramo has been there with a great save. He’s given us great saves at the right time. That’s what you need from a goalie.”
Ramo has found his game, which surely helps.
As the only Pacific Division team in action Tuesday, Calgary whizzed past San Jose, Vancouver and Anaheim into third place with 40 points.
They’re looking like last year’s Flames again, but with a lot less luck.