Flames’ Dube using skill, sandpaper to emerge as Calgary’s difference-maker

Sportsnet’s Ryan Leslie and Eric Francis chat about the Calgary Flames Game 1 win against the Dallas Stars and that setting the tone early in the game helped the Flames capture the victory.

EDMONTON — It was the type of highlight-reel move Dillon Dube has seen play out at Rogers Place many times before.

The man performing it is usually Connor McDavid, the fastest skater alive.

Yet, there was Dube, in just his fifth NHL playoff game, gaining speed through the neutral zone with a sudden urge to try going wide around Dallas defenceman Andrej Sekera.

It worked, suddenly springing the 22-year-old Flames winger to cut towards the net and in alone on Anton Khudobin, who he deftly danced around before depositing it into an empty net.

It came seven minutes after he’d opened the scoring with a world-class one-timer, allowing the lad from nearby Cochrane, Alta., to host a second-consecutive breakout party.

One game after his first NHL playoff goal eliminated the Winnipeg Jets, his two-spot was instrumental in a 3-2 series-opening win over the Stars that also required plenty of his defensive moxie to solidify the result.

“I came through with some speed and, at that point, I just wanted to challenge him,” said Dube of the nifty net-finder. “If worst came to worst, we’d just kind of battle it into the corner. Luckily enough, I got a step on him and was able to take it to the net.”

And take it to the Stars, who saw Dube open the night with a monster hit, before closing it as one of many defensive stalwarts on a team impressively dedicated to the defensive cause.

“He’s got great speed, but what I liked about him was there was no fear in him cutting to the net,” said coach Geoff Ward of the goal that put Calgary up 2-0 late in the opening period.

“He just cut right in there as soon as he saw his seam and he’s been dialled in for us this whole playoffs and (Tuesday) he had a couple of real big moments for us. He actually could have had a hat trick in the first period, he had that breakaway that he missed. He does an awful lot of things with his speed but we really liked the fact he’s got some sandpaper with his skill level. He’s not afraid to go to the hard areas to make plays.”

It’s sizeable praise for the five-foot-11, 185-pounder who started the first 13 games of the season in the minors with instructions to work more on his play along the wall.

Now he’s dominating them, with a little help from co-stars Milan Lucic and Sam Bennett, who made up the Flames’ best line for the second game in a row.

It’s a development few could have predicted, especially after Dube missed the first four days of training camp 2.0 and was believed by some to be behind the eight ball.

Not so.

“He showed up in training camp in great shape — it was almost as if his game was at another level when he came to camp, and he’s just carried that into games,” said Ward, adding that speed isn’t the only thing he’s been building of late.

“I think every game he plays, he’s gaining more and more confidence, so that allows him to play freely and get to his skill. So, now we’re seeing him make some really, really key plays. Maybe for some people that haven’t watched us a lot, he stands out as a surprise, but to his teammates and coaches, we’ve seen this building for a while now and he’s an important part of our lineup.”

By virtue of his captaincy and success for Canada at the world juniors, many believed Dube could be a difference-maker for the Flames in due time.

This is ahead of schedule, coming against the Dallas team that gave Calgary the second-round pick they used to draft Dube 56th overall in 2016, in exchange for pending UFA Kris Russell.

Dube’s goals were erased midway through the afternoon when the Stars were the beneficiaries of two fortuitous bounces within nine seconds that tied the affair.

It was a Rasmus Andersson roof job of the tip off Sekera’s stick that broke the deadlock with four minutes left in the second period, setting the stage for the Flames to try holding onto the type of playoff lead that was their ultimate undoing a year earlier against Colorado.

“Just playing simple — when there’s no play there, we get pucks in and get pucks out, and be on the forecheck,” explained TJ Brodie of their newfound second-half success, based largely around a defence-first mantra.

“That’s the biggest difference — last year we tried to make plays when they weren’t there and got into the rush game, and when you get into that, you never know what is going to happen. It feels good. You can feel the chemistry in the room and the trust between the guys knowing guys are going to do their job and make the right play. And if they don’t, there’s going to be guys to back him up. It definitely feels different than the previous years.”

Untested following relatively meaningless round-robin play, the Stars were physically dominated and on their heels early, prompting Corey Perry to try shifting momentum by picking a fight with his fellow London Knights alum, Matthew Tkachuk.

To no one’s surprise.

Tkachuk got the better of the 35-year-old veteran, pushing him to the ice, drawing rousing stick taps and love from the bench.

The momentum continued, making it three straight wins for a Flames team that seemed to flip a switch in the second period of Game 3 against Winnipeg, playing with a confidence and completeness not exhibited by the bunch all season.

“Especially in the first period, I thought we did a good job of establishing our physicality, similar to what we did last series against Winnipeg,” said Noah Hanifin.

“It’s a strong asset for our team and it’s important to get to that each game.”

Although he let in the first soft goal of these playoffs, Cam Talbot bounced back well, stopping 24 shots, including a game-saver off the stick of Joe Pavelski with nine second left in the game, while the Flames killed off a last-minute penalty to Mark Giordano for flipping the puck over the glass.

“I think the biggest thing for us is I think we gained some confidence tonight,” said Ward, whose team plays the first four games of the series in five and a half days.

“I think we learned some things as a team that we can certainly apply through the series. So, for us, it was a good first game. (Andersson and Dube) both have a lot of confidence in their games right now. They’re playing pretty loosely out there. I don’t think the size of the stage intimidates them at all — they actually look forward to it. Because they are gaining confidence and experience on a game-by-game basis, they’re feeding off it and using it to motivate themselves in the right way.

“We’re seeing right now, they’re creating some awfully big moments for us in hockey games.”

Game 2 goes Thursday night at 8:30 p.m. MT.

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