CALGARY — Demoted to the third line and reduced to a season low of ice time, Johnny Gaudreau finally pushed back Thursday.
Instead of pouting and further retreating, the man whose engagement has been questioned throughout the season showed plenty of fight.
Legs pumping to help create plenty of offensive-zone time alongside Derek Ryan and Milan Lucic, he somehow turned an obvious demotion into one of his best efforts of the season.
So much so, by late in the second period he got his old gig back as part of sweeping line changes precipitated entirely by his play.
Exactly what interim coach Geoff Ward was hoping for when he explained the overhaul up front was designed to spark energy and goal scoring.
"I thought he was really good — he had a lot of energy and was on a lot of pucks," said Ward of Gaudreau, who has the hockey world puzzled by his ineffectiveness 30 games in.
"He looked like his old self, making plays when he got across the blue line. The two passes he made across to (Noah) Hanifin in the second period — when we saw those we knew he had some juice going. He was really loose on the bench, there was no frustration on his part."
A goal — his first in 11 outings — only tells part of the story for man who only has six all season (to go with 16 helpers).
It was his determination and rare emotion that led to five shots on goal that said plenty more in a 4-3 win over Buffalo that gives the Flames nine of their last possible 10 points.
Against all odds this embattled team has momentum and, on this night, plenty of feel-good storylines — like Milan Lucic scoring his first goal as a Flame and Tobias Rieder scoring a shorty that won a fan a brand new car.
But most importantly, they may have Gaudreau back — a development that will ultimately dictate whether this team is a playoff team.
So important is the former 99-point playmaker that his early goal and solid start on the night was the impetus to make wholesale line changes back to some more regular trios.
And that meant reuniting the team’s long-time lifeline, pairing Gaudreau with his pal Sean Monahan, who also scored.
"We liked the look of the new lines, but when Johnny started stepping it up a little we thought we should get them back together," said Ward of his most important duo.
"I just felt like he was going and Monny was going — it was a chance to get them some ice time (together). Once he got together with Monny a little later in the game we saw little of that old magic starting to happen again."
On a night in which he’d play a season low 13:09, Gaudreau opened the Flames scoring late in the first period with a wrister from the faceoff dot that found the top shelf past Linus Ullmark.
Although it was just his sixth of the year, it felt for a moment just like old times, albeit without any sign of joy or even relief.
"I was excited I got a goal," said Gaudreau afterwards of the stoic reaction. "They haven’t been coming easy for me this year so it was nice. Hopefully it gets me out of that little slump there and I can keep putting it in the net."
Gaudreau’s was a powerplay marker alongside the usual suspects.
"Whatever Wardo thinks is going to help win games for this team you’ve got to be on board with that," said Gaudreau when asked about his starting assignment, which left him with just four minutes of ice time in the first period. "We had eight penalties so it’s going to be hard to find the ice with eight penalties."
Despite the fact the revamped lines that started the game were effective across the board at generating time in Buffalo’s end, none of the goals came from the new trios.
Rieder’s shorthanded breakaway goal drew a cheer and standing ovation from Gaudreau who watched it from the penalty box midway through a 1-1 game.
The only one happier for Rieder was Cindy Fisher, who benefitted from an in-house promotion that rewarded her with a Chevy Malibu if someone scored within the minute allotted.
"After the goal on the bench Monny told me, ‘you just won a lady a car," said Rieder, of his second goal of the year and the first shorthanded marker of the season for the team’s fifth-ranked penalty kill this year.
"I said, ‘what’s going on?’ I saw her on the Jumbotron and she seemed really excited. I just met her outside and I was really happy for her."
Monahan made it 3-1 with his seventh four minutes later before Lucic’s goal early in the third almost blew the roof off the joint.
"It was great — a little bit of a relief," said Lucic, a fan favourite in Calgary for his physical play. "Always nice to get the first one with your new team. My teammates have stuck with me and been building me up because it took longer than I hoped — and probably a lot of people had hoped — but good on everyone for all the support.
"I’m more than excited that I was able to do it in front of the hometown fans. They’ve stuck with me throughout the whole season so far and never gave up. It’s nice that it ends up being the winner."
Two late goals by the Sabres ruined an otherwise stellar outing by David Rittich who was instrumental in killing off seven of the eight powerplays.
"I’m sure it feels good for those guys to get off the snide," said Ryan. "But I think it has just been a statement week. We’re starting to find our game a little bit, slowly. The snowball is starting to pick up speed."