Flames’ future hinges on top line improving five-on-five performance

EDMONTON — Conventional wisdom suggested the Calgary Flames would only go as far in these playoffs as the top line would carry them.

The reality is that the Flames have survived this long in spite of the top line’s inability to contribute offensively.

Outside of the power play they’ve been invisible as a unit.

No sustained pressure against the Dallas Stars, and very few offensive chances.

To get here, the team’s depth charges and goaltender have taken turns playing hero, while Johnny Gaudreau, Sean Monahan and Elias Lindholm have scored just one five-on-five goal in these playoffs.

You read that right.

Now might be a good time for them to step up.

And they know it.

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Otherwise, the year-long narrative that suggests they simply aren’t built for playoff hockey will gain even more momentum — as will calls for a shakeup.

“Obviously all three in this series could be better,” said Lindholm, when asked why the team’s “top” trio has been anything but. “Right now I think we’re just spread out. We need to be more together. Once one guy gets it and dumps it in, two guys are standing still and it’s hard to get the puck back. It’s a lot of ins and outs and a lot of time in the defensive zone. It’s coming more together and with more speed.”

Tied 2-2 with a stifling Stars squad that was the West’s stingiest team all season, the Flames as a group have had a hard time gaining the zone with anything other than dump ins – something Gaudreau despises.

“We chip it in too much because it’s the playoffs and you don’t want to turn it over,” said Gaudreau, who has struggled to carry the puck over the Stars’ blue line, or “through the muck,” as Flames head coach Geoff Ward calls it. “We’ve got to try to get the puck down low and forecheck and try to make some plays off the rush.”

The trio certainly deserves credit for their power play contributions against Winnipeg, which were instrumental in the four-game series.

They’ve also bought into the new, defence-first mantra, handling plenty of defensive zone starts and assignments well.

They have not been a liability in their own end.

But they are being paid to score, or at the very least, create sustained pressure offensively. They’ve failed miserably on that front.

“At this time of year, no matter who you are, if you are a first line guy you’re expected to score, and generate, with the added addition of making sure you’re making smart plays that won’t put your team in a hard, tough spot,” said assistant coach Ryan Huska.

“[Sunday] night was the first time in this series we felt they were dangerous five-on-five, and it’s something that we’re looking to continue.”

That’s quite an indictment, four games in.

“In order for that line to have success it can’t be two guys going, or one guy going, it has to be all three,” explained Huska, who figures they need to play more as a unit.

“At this time of year there’s so much attention placed on these guys and there’s so little room for them to do what they do well that it’s really made difficult on them. Their challenge I feel as a line is to make sure they do a good job supporting each other and working to come with speed. We did see some signs of life out of that line last night and that’s a real positive thing for us.”

Signs of life aren’t good enough.

What’s required is a steady pulse from what should be the heartbeat of this team.

Instead, a handful of others have stepped up ahead of them to be leaders when it matters most.

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Sunday’s heartbreaking 5-4 overtime loss did indeed include a few glimmers of hope for the trio with a few sustained offensive forays, as well as two prime overtime chances for Gaudreau.

Gaudreau’s goal and assist, as well as Monahan’s two assists, all came on the power play.

Baby steps.

“I thought they were better for sure,” said Ward Monday. “We just have to keep building with it. They created some scoring opportunities five-on-five [Sunday] and they did some things on the power play. Looked like they had a little bit better feel for the game and what was happening out there.

“We just want them to keep moving in the direction they’re moving in and we’ll see what happens [Tuesday].”

Lindholm has found other ways to contribute through these playoffs, by way of the penalty kill. On Sunday he led all forwards with six minutes of short-handed play and had a game-high seven hits.

Unlike his linemates, no one will be clamoring for him to be traded if this series ends poorly.

He scored the line’s lone five-on-five goal this summer on an unassisted tally in Game 2 against Winnipeg.

But they still need more from him.

Five of Gaudreau’s six points have come on the power play, with the other coming on an empty net goal.

A perimeter player at the best of times, Gaudreau has been nowhere near the fabric of the game in this tourney.

Monahan’s team-leading eight points include five on the power play and two on empty-netters.

He’ll likely never get the credit he deserves for his defensive play, as his chief task is creating offence.

You don’t need stats to prop up the notion they haven’t pulled their weight.

Nor does anyone need reminding that if the Flames can’t find a way to win two more games against Dallas, the top line will be in the crosshairs for yet another off-season.

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