CALGARY – The Calgary Flames’ top line has been called a lot of things throughout the team’s magical rise to prominence this season.
“Stale” wasn’t one of them, until coach Bill Peters suggested as much Wednesday morning.
So he switched it up, sending Elias Lindholm to the second line in exchange for Matthew Tkachuk. It was as much to try re-igniting Tkachuk as it was to help recalibrate Johnny Gaudreau and Sean Monahan, who’ve all struggled to find the net since the prolonged break. It worked.
The top trio dominated in a fast, tight-checking matchup with the stingy New York Islanders, creating endless scoring chances in a game that saw Gaudreau fire seven of his line’s nine shots on goal.
Gaudreau finally broke the game open early in the third when he scored 29 seconds after Austin Czarnik to put the Flames up 4-2 for good in a hard-hitting, chippy affair they’ll re-stage on Long Island next week. It was Gaudreau’s first in 10 outings and 30th on the season, tying a career-high he’s reached once before.
“I mean, there are probably different words to use there (other than stale), but we just couldn’t get it going (of late),” said Gaudreau, who dropped in the scoring race with just five assists over that span.
“Sometimes when you change the lines up you get a little spark, a little energy. I thought we worked well together – we got a lot of looks, especially in the second period. A post (Tkachuk), a couple two-on-ones, I thought we played well. I thought both lines with the switch played well tonight.”
Forced to play the type of defensive game that has been the Islanders’ calling card all season, the Flames were up 2-1 after two, holding the visitors to just seven shots. All told, the Flames held the Isles to just 20 shots, helping Mike Smith to his third-straight win.
“That’s probably as good as we’ve played defensively and I think a lot of it started on the offensive side – our forwards gave us a lot of back pressure,” said Hamonic, breaking into a big grin while admitting how nice it felt to score on the team he played for the first seven years of his career.
“I think it’s going to tighten up even more as there’s a lot on the line and things are magnified.”
Peters has insisted for weeks the games would get tighter defensively, which hasn’t been the case for the Flames until the best defensive team in the league came calling.
The Flames responded impressively, giving them their third win in a row after an 0-2-2 skid that had some worried about their ability to stay atop the west. They now have a three-point cushion on second-place San Jose.
“We’re going to have to be that airtight, I think, moving forward,” said Peters, whose club hosts Anaheim Friday. “We’re capable of it and we’re capable of still being dangerous offensively and still being defensively sound.”
Lindholm’s 200-foot game has done well to lead that charge, as he did Wednesday with the type of greasy effort many believe is key to driving this team.
“It gives us some versatility – we can put those lines back any time and don’t need to practice with them,” said Peters, who will no doubt move his lines around plenty down the stretch and even in the playoffs.
That’s just what he does to kick-start his lads.
It got fans excited, too, as locals have long wondered how effective Tkachuk would be on his off-wing with the big boys.
“I thought we played great – we played in the offensive zone a lot tonight,” said Gaudreau of his new line, which clicked well despite all three players being left-handed. “In the defensive zone I thought we played well in front of Smitty, and he was a rock back there.
“A pretty complete game for our team there.”