TORONTO – Only in the standings are all regulation losses measured equal.
Two days and one critical team meeting later, they turned around and pushed the defending-champ Washington Capitals to a shootout, and on Monday the Flames delivered what goalie Mike Smith dubbed “the best game we’ve played all season” from a defensive standpoint, on the road, against one of the top-five scariest offences in hockey, defeating the Toronto Maple Leafs 3-1 in decisive fashion.
“It was time for us to step up and do something,” said Sean Monahan, a Brampton, Ont., native with a grandma in the stands and a 99-year-old great-grandpa watching proudly on national TV.
After his top line stirred up chances aplenty but, like the rest of the night’s participants, failed to crack a 0-0 deadlock through 40 minutes, Monahan banged in the opener on a third-period power-play and 55 seconds later orchestrated winger Elias Lindholm’s pretty tic-tac-toe game-winner after swiping a puck from Mitch Marner in the Leafs’ zone.
Six years in the league, Monahan couldn’t recall ever scoring or winning in his NHL hometown before tonight.
“Just the character. You lose 9-1, you get booed out of your own rink — that’s embarrassing,” Monahan said. “To come here and get two points, that’s huge.”
— Calgary Flames (@NHLFlames) October 30, 2018
Gaudreau praised linemate Lindholm’s smarts and skills. The other guy in the Noah Hanifin trade snapped a game-high six shots and now leads all Flames with eight goals — the first Calgary skater to notch that many through 11 games in more than a decade (Jarome Iginla and Daymond Langkow each had eight in 11 to start 2007-08).
Lindholm’s fit on the top line has been swift and natural, an easy counterpoint for those calling for a James Neal promotion.
“He has a great release,” Gaudreau said. “When I throw it over to him over there, it’s on his stick and off his stick in half a second.”
Starting with Monahan, Flames coach Bill Peters counted eight Ontario boys on his lineup card and accurately predicted extra jump for the annual trip.
“You can’t help but get up for games like these,” Smith said pre-game. After losing his last three starts, the veteran couldn’t help but take some comfort knowing Auston Matthews wouldn’t dress.
“Whenever one of the best players in the world isn’t in the lineup, it’s unfortunate for him and their team, but I guess we’re catching them at a good time. Saying that, they still have a lot of weapons. It’s not like he comes out and their lineup goes to crap.
“We still need to be on our A-game tonight.”
That they did. Weapons silenced. We’d even bump Calgary’s grade up to an A+.
From puck drop, the Flames flexed more desire, maintained better structure, and sucked the life out of Toronto’s rush attack and the 18,989 who paid good dollars for sloppy passes and limited thrills at Scotiabank Arena.
The Maple Leafs gave the puck away 26 times, twice as frequently as their guests.
“If our group can wrap their head around the fact we’ve gotta check and check for our chances and be proud of the way we played in our D-zone, I think we have a chance to be real good,” Peters said.
“We’re learning how to manage the puck, taking some of the risk out of our game, and if we continue to do that, we can have a good team by the time it’s all said and done.”
Smith was rock-solid when he needed to be, but his foil at the other end, Frederik Andersen, had to be spectacular just to keep the game within reach.
The Leafs’ lone goal was a Nazem Kadri strike that arrived late on a 69-second, 5-on-3 power-play granted by an iffy Mark Giordano interference penalty that Peters questioned post-game:
Leafs winger Zach Hyman noted that Peters’ and Mike Babcock’s teams deploy a similar style, but only one executed on this night.
“I just thought they were prepared, I thought they skated, I thought they worked, I thought they sailed out of their zone and beat us up the ice,” Babcock said.
“The game is frustrating when the other team works harder than you.”
As the road-warrior Flames piled on a bus to cruise the QEW through the night to Buffalo for the second-half of their back-to-back, they cited this victory as an example of what they’re capable of, how they can play when motivated and working in unison.
“When we play good, we can play against the best,” Lindholm said. “And tonight we did.”
Smith, another Ontario boy, crowned Monday’s shutdown effort in Toronto their new standard.
Calgary’s defence corps has long been hyped as one of the best on paper, but on Monday — with T.J. Brodie showing flashes of old and Travis Hamonic looking healthy and inspired — it actually looked like one of the best on ice.
“A huge win. We just played together as a team. We made it hard on two really good hockey teams to transition and get any rush chances. It’s hard to play like that, but it’s rewarding when you win. And when you deserve to win hockey games, it feels really good,” Smith said.
“We realize the differences between Pittsburgh and tonight.”