CALGARY – The Calgary Flames are back in the saddle – as in the Dome and atop the west.
Snapping a four-game losing streak against a divisional foe that had won six straight, the Flames leap-frogged the San Jose Sharks to regain Pacific division bragging rights Sunday night.
And they did it the old fashioned way – with their top players.
On this night, with the stakes befitting a return engagement with Vegas, three other top six forwards were the ones who finally answered the bell in a 6-3 win over the Knights.
Yes, the same line the Flames have long counted on to shut down the opposition, turned the tables on a troubling trend in Calgary with a monumental effort.
Matthew Tkachuk’s first NHL hat trick (and assist) highlighted an 11-point effort from Calgary’s 3M Line, which included two goals and an assist from Mikael Backlund and four assists for Michael Frolik.
“I don’t even know if I should be the one to have it,” said Tkachuk when asked about the keepsake puck.
“I should cut it in half and give it to Backs and Fro just for the job they did tonight. They gave me a couple of tap-in birdies there. Couple open nets and they were awesome tonight.”
Stewing in a two-game road trip through Vegas and Phoenix that saw the Flames score just one goal, the Flames returned to the Dome feeling the heat of a surging Vegas team that had made up eight points on the Flames since the Feb. 25 trade deadline.
A Knights win Sunday would have cut the lead to six, given the visitors a 3-1 series win this season along with plenty of confidence and momentum should the two collide early in the playoffs.
But the Flames had other ideas, refusing to give up on their pursuit of first in the Pacific division, which they found themselves playing second fiddle in on Saturday for the first time in more than two months.
That’s how long things had been going Calgary’s way, before the recent four-game slide proved their defensive improvements could no longer overcome their sudden offensive shortcomings.
“Every time you end a losing streak you feel good, it’s a relief,” said Backlund, who snapped a 3-3 tie with 22 seconds left in the second period with a net-front redirect that was challenged and cleared, prompting goalie Malcolm Subban to lose his composure at the horn and earn a penalty.
“This stretch can be a little tough on the group but guys approached it the right way this morning. Now we’ve been No. 1 for a while and it puts a little more pressure on the team and maybe that’s part of why we had two losing streaks. Everybody has them, except Tampa I guess. Being through some tough years you really appreciate being in this spot and want to make the most of it for sure.”
A veteran’s deke by young Andrew Mangiapane opened the scoring in an intense first period the Flames led 3-1. The Knights scored twice in the opening 80 seconds of the second to remind everyone what a tough out they’ll be again this spring.
“We know how they play and they know what we’re all about – who gets to their game first and stays on it wins,” said Flames coach Bill Peters of the potential playoff partner they finished the season series tied 2-2 with.
“We got to our game early, came off it and got rattled, and then got composed again. But in the end, the execution improved.”
David Rittich (25 saves) was solid in the third period as the Knight pressed for the tie, before Tkachuk converted a sweet Backlund pass into an open net with four minutes left. His empty-netter two minutes later prompted hundreds of hats and toques to hit the ice from a fan base finally able to exhale.
“We struggled the past week or so, so to get that one at the begging of a home-stand here, we just want to carry the momentum,” said Tkachuk, whose club plays two more at home against non-playoff teams before a jaunt to Winnipeg, where they’ll definitely need the top guns to continue their rebound.
“(Scoring) is obviously a focal point lately and we know it.
We don’t have to get reminded about how we’re struggling to put the puck in the net. It was definitely a relief tonight.
“We didn’t talk about (losing first place) at all today but would assume if you asked every guy to give their honest answer, we don’t want to be trailing anybody. We want to win the division, not finish second or third. We didn’t want to be chasing teams and I think it was a little extra motivation.”