Flames hoping line changes can keep spurring on Gaudreau, Monahan

Ryan Leslie explains how the Calgary Flames seem to be coming out of a tough stretch under Geoff Ward.

The question is a simple one, even though the task at hand is monumental.

How do you find a way to spur on Johnny Gaudreau and Sean Monahan?

Geoff Ward, who was thrust into the spotlight as the man in charge of helping them turn their scoring fortunes around, has a plan.

Having sat down with both players in the last week as part of his team-wide one-on-ones, the former high school teacher says the program moving forward is in the works.

“With us, I think the biggest thing is we want them to feel it’s not their fault why the results have maybe been like they have been,” said Ward, a former P.E. teacher.

“They’re only one-23rd of the team. We’re trying to take any sort of pressure they’re feeling off their shoulders.”

Step one of that was on display Thursday night when Ward employed radical line changes that included splitting up the long-time dynamic duo.

Gaudreau, the team’s chief playmaker, was switched to his off-wing and demoted to the third line alongside Derek Ryan and Milan Lucic, who had a combined four goals before puck drop. Gaudreau only had five.

Gaudreau responded with a power-play goal and perhaps his best outing of the year despite playing a season-low 13 minutes.

Monahan was given second-line duties between Dillon Dube and Mikael Backlund with an eye on allowing the latter to help ease the defensive burden that may be costing the 30-goal scorer some offence.

Monahan’s response came in the form of his seventh of the year, thanks to a great pass by Backlund.

The new lines were a smash hit, earning the Flames plenty of offensive zone time in a 4-3 win over Buffalo.

Alas, once it was clear Gaudreau was rolling along, Ward immediately put the two long-time linemates back together for the game’s latter half.

That said, don’t be surprised if they start Saturday’s game against Los Angeles with the new lines back intact.

“In my experience when you’re struggling, one of the easiest answers is to just give yourself to the team for a while,” said Ward of his advice for the duo.

“Just come in and play for the team and play with a reckless game. Not coming in with expectations, just play because that’s what you loved to do as a kid. Play free. It’s amazing when you do that how the puck starts coming back to you. That’s what we want from them. Give themselves to the team for a couple weeks.”

If they can, the sky is the limit for a team that has quietly gone about winning nine of its last 10 possible points, despite one of the most tumultuous times in franchise lore.

Given the outstanding goaltending of David Rittich, if Monahan and Gaudreau can find a way to start scoring goals like they did last year, the playoffs won’t be in question for very long.

After all, they are the engine required to drive this club, for better or worse.

“They take a lot of pride in how they play and how they prepare,” said Ward, who was thrilled with Gaudreau’s effort Thursday.

“I don’t want to say they’re frustrated anymore, but I think they went through that. Now it’s just making sure they’re comfortable and having fun again. In speaking to them after some games they’re really taking it hard – harder than maybe they should be. We’ve just got to ease that burden a little bit and put them in situations where they can have some success and some fun.”

That sure seemed to be the case Thursday, even though Gaudreau was expressionless following his wristy roof job late in the first period.

“Whatever Wardo thinks is going to help win games for this team you’ve got to be on board with that,” said Gaudreau, adding he believes his reduced ice time had plenty to do with the eight penalties the Flames had to kill.

If that is indeed Gaudreau’s attitude, good for him.

It’s hard to tell as the quiet winger shares very little on or off the ice these days.

“You always go through different stages of emotion,” said Monahan of his mindset.

“You want to produce and you want to help the team win, so when that doesn’t happen it obviously gets frustrating.

Right now, it’s about winning and that’s all I really care about.”

Right now they are, landing the team in a four-way tie for the final wild-card spot.

“We need a spark right now and we need to score goals,” added Monahan, a three-time 30-goal scorer who is on pace for 18 this year.

“Our line wasn’t good enough the last long while now. We need a spark and we’ll see where it goes from there.

“We’ve got to look past (the start). It’s a long season. We’ve got to move forward. I think we’ve really come together especially in the last week. Everybody has got to step up and we’ve got to put this team where it needs to be.”

It doesn’t need to be on their shoulders, as Ward hopes to move more and more towards being a four-line team.

But if the Flames are going to continue turning the season around, Gaudreau and Monahan will most certainly need to do more heavy lifting.

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