Flames’ Noah Hanifin’s breakthrough vs. Devils a long time coming

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Calgary Flames defenceman Noah Hanifin (55) celebrates a goal with centre Derek Ryan (10). (Ross D. Franklin/AP)

CALGARY – For the entirety of their time here together, Noah Hanifin and Travis Hamonic have been joined at the hip.

So inextricable, they’re listed consecutively in the NHL’s Official Guide and Record Book.

Patrolling the Flames’ second unit night in and night out, they were gaining the reputation as the Will and Jada, the Goldie and Kurt, the Johnny and Monny of the Flames’ back end.

So when their inevitable breakup came midway through their last game, teammates saw it as open season.

“All the guys were giving it to us, calling us The Inseparables, and tonight we were separated,” said Hanifin, looking longingly across the dressing room where Hamonic sits.

“Thing is, we know we can get back together at any given point. It’s alright. Me and Travis are fine — we’re still good friends.”

Unlike two nights earlier when the splitting of all three defensive pairings was part of coach Bill Peters’ fury, the dressing room was far more conducive to jocularity Thursday.

A 5-2 win over New Jersey proved to be the perfect bounce-back for a squad that had deserved a solid kick in the rear by the boss 48 hours earlier.

Johnny Gaudreau and Sean Monahan were back in the scoring column for the first time since Game 2, Elias Lindholm extended his point streak to nine games, David Rittich was steady as always and Derek Ryan’s fourth line provided energy (and a goal) to pace the hosts.

But it was a three-point effort from Hanifin that was the talk of the town.

Make no mistake, you could see this coming.

The 22-year-old first rounder has been exhibiting increased comfort in carrying the puck and using his deft skating ability to create some offence.

He’s had the green light to go all season and Thursday night he fully embraced it.

With his first full-time gig on the second powerplay unit alongside his new partner Rasmus Andersson adding to his mojo, the big man was rewarded in spades.

Midway through a tight game he found himself with the puck behind the net, delivering a crisp pass on Monahan’s tape to tie it 2-2.

A Hanifin assist on Mikael Backlund’s power play goal put the Flames up five minutes later, before a power play strike of his own from the point beat MacKenzie Blackwood to break the game open.

“I think I’ve been skating better this year and the chances have been there,” said Hanifin, taken fifth overall in 2015.

“I feel I’m best when I’m skating and trying to create offence. That’s my game. That’s something I’ve been trying to get to this year. My skating ability I feel is one of my strongest assets.”

Sure is, and it was on full display throughout an evening in which the man who’d been dedicated to shutting down opponents the last year also ripped one off the post.

“That’s definitely a lot of the Hani I’m used to seeing, especially in Carolina,” said Derek Ryan, who has played alongside Hanifin for four years.

“I felt like he had the confidence to play like that. You saw it out there tonight, he had the puck on his stick a lot and making skilled plays and he had that confidence.”

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With the ever-confident Andersson playing well alongside him, it was a glimpse of what may be the future top pairing for the club.

“Me and him same draft year, same age, both young guys and I think we both feed off each other pretty well,” said the six-foot-three, 215-pound Hanifin who notched the fourth three-point game of his career.

“You don’t want to look too long into the future though. It was a good night all around for us. I thought we had a lot of success as a group. I think it’s good to freshen things up a bit and play with someone new. Things ran a little stale for a bit, so that helped tonight.”

Hamonic played well alongside Mark Giordano on a night in which the Flames pieced together their most complete outing in a young season full of peaks and valleys.

Yet, there sit the Flames at 10-7-2, tied for tops in the Pacific Division with Edmonton, albeit with a few games in hand on the pack.

For all the concern about inconsistency, the group has won four of five and has done a good job progressing.

“I liked everybody tonight to be honest with you,” said Peters, who was happy to single out Hanifin for an effort that included four shots on goal and three hits from a former 10-goal scorer in Carolina who established a career high with 33 points last year.

“Hani skated and he was involved. He’s dynamic and he’s getting a little bit of juice off the power play. It’s something we’ll probably stay with here and allow him to expand his game even further.”

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