CALGARY — Everyone wants to know how the Calgary Flames have been able to help Geoff Ward open his NHL coaching career with seven straight wins.
On Thursday night, his troops used just 150 seconds to offer up a pretty succinct explanation.
Down 2-1 with 20 minutes left against a similarly surging Toronto Maple Leafs squad, the Flames opened the third with three goals before the three-minute mark.
A Michael Frolik goal was sandwiched by a pair of Johnny Gaudreau markers that turned a game previously controlled by the visitors into a 4-2 Flames lead they’d hold onto for good.
After two-dozen games struggling to find the net, the Flames are now back to scoring plenty of goals like they did a year ago. Ranked 30th in goals per game mere weeks ago, they’ve now cobbled together five in a row with at least four snipes.
Amazing how offence can solve so many problems.
Oh sure, the Flames have rid their game of the mind-numbing giveaways that marked the opening of their campaign. They’re focusing more on defence, and they’re forechecking harder, which has translated into a windfall of wins that keeps the Flames atop the league’s list as its hottest team.
It also happens to have them two points behind Arizona for the Pacific division lead and tied with suddenly stagnant Edmonton.
An amazing turnaround for a team that somehow breathed new life into its season in the midst of an uncomfortable coach investigation that opened the door for Ward to play the hero.
And while every player in the Flames room speaks glowingly of the empowering practices of the 57-year-old former schoolteacher, the praise on this night also revolved largely around the penalty killers.
Shortly after Gaudreau’s ninth of the year, the Flames found themselves down two men against a Leafs power play that had been operating at over 35 per cent under new coach Sheldon Keefe.
A perfect chance for the Leafs to turn back the tide.
However, with Mikael Backlund manning the top and Mark Giordano and Michael Stone working down low, the trio helped David Rittich stop a group that features John Tavares, Mitch Marner, Auston Matthews, William Nylander and Tyson Barrie.
“Oh my god I was struggling there,” said Rittich of a frantic window that saw the Leafs continually reload on great scoring chances. “All guys who went there for that penalty kill did an amazing job blocking shots and blocking the seams.”
One sequence saw Rittich make a brilliant stop on Tavares, followed seconds later by a Matthews shot off the post that fooled the goal judge before Rittich covered up. Another glove snare off a Matthews shot got the crowd revved up before the power play expired.
“That’s the reason why we won the game,” said Gaudreau, frankly. “It’s a minute-and-a-half of 5-on-3 with five really skilled players out there – for our penalty killers to kill that off is a great job on their part.”
“They did a really good job and of course Ritter did a great job when he had to,” said the coach, who said his team’s resilience has had plenty to do with wins like these against a Leafs squad that had the Flames in their end a good chunk of the evening.
“Stoney and Gio blocking shots – it was a real big effort for us. It sure makes the game different when you come out of a 5-on-3 clean as opposed to them scoring a goal.”
Unquestionably the star of the game, the man who made 32 saves for the Flames is on the verge of being taken for granted ’round these parts. Every game he’s played he’s given his team a chance to win, including a statement game in Colorado Tuesday and this monster matchup against a team that had won six of nine.
“It was a bounce back for me from that game in Colorado which wasn’t my best performance,” said Rittich, who made his biggest stop of the night with a glove beauty on Tavares, in alone with four minutes left.
“We start playing more like a team, more defensively, and it’s not just our zone but the offensive zone. We don’t have many 3-on-2’s or 2-on-1’s like we did before. You can see guys backchecking all night long and fighting to block shots.”
Winning 17 of a possible 18 points of late, the Flames obviously have plenty of momentum, thanks to scoring from, well, everyone.
Frolik’s goal came after a nifty feed from fellow fourth-liner Tobias Rieder, giving the Czech winger a goal in his third consecutive game following a 22-game drought.
Monahan’s first of two assists extended his point streak to eight games when he set up Travis Hamonic’s point blast past Frederik Andersen to tie the game 1-1.
Gaudreau now has four goals and eight points in his last nine outings, to continue his quest to find his old form.
“I don’t know, he still can’t score on me,” deadpanned Rittich when asked about Gaudreau’s newfound confidence.
“I don’t know if he’s back, but it seems like he can find a way to put it in right now. I’m really happy for him. Hopefully he’s still got a lot more on his stick.”
Making as much of a statement with their Leafs win as they did two nights earlier, the Flames have a chance to continue their run with home games against Carolina, Pittsburgh and Montreal.
“Obviously it wasn’t the start we wanted (to the season) but that whole situation we put it behind us, started fresh with Wardo and we’ve been playing well and smart and it’s showing in our results,” said Gaudreau.
“He does a great job. He expects a lot out of us but we like playing for him. For him to go seven games in a row never being a head coach is pretty impressive.”