It was undoubtedly the most painful hat trick of Johnny Gaudreau’s career.
How long that pain resonates could have a major impact on the Calgary Flames’ fortunes.
Late in a 4-1 win over the Winnipeg Jets Thursday night, Gaudreau danced around Dustin Byfuglien with such brilliance the bruising defender could only turn and wave his stick at no. 13. He did so with significant force and at shoulder height, slashing Gaudreau around the left bicep and drawing an obvious penalty just before a wincing Gaudreau fired the puck into an empty net for his fourth career hat trick.
As a smattering of hats hit the ice at Bell MTS Place, Gaudreau immediately left the ice in obvious pain despite there being two minutes left on the clock. He didn’t return.
After the game, he told reporters he was “fine,” but Flames fans have every reason to wonder what the repercussions might be. Will Byfuglien’s slash be looked at by the league as a dangerous play? Will Gaudreau truly be “fine” for Saturday’s game against Vancouver?
Lord knows the Flames need him to be okay if they are to continue running with the league’s big boys. His three goals in a tight, top-ranked showdown in the west pushed the Flames to 12-0-2 when Johnny Hockey scores. It marked the tenth time in Flames lore a player reached 50 points before the team’s 40th game.
He’s been sublime all year, his most consistent campaign by far, scoring 19 times and adding 32 helpers.
The 25-year-old’s outburst snapped a three-game losing streak the Flames took into the break – the type of losing run that has been their undoing the last several years. Mission accomplished in the most unlikely of buildings, against the most unlikely of opponents.
More takeaways from the Flames’ second win in as many tries against the class of the west:
BIG SAVE DAVE
It only stood to reason goalies might be the ones who’d struggle most following three days off without touching the ice.
However, it appears David Rittich spent Christmas playing shinny at Shouldice as the Czech goalie was spectacular all night long. In the first period alone he turned aside 14 shots including three dangerous chances by Patrik Laine and two from Bryan Little.
Not bad for a guy who hadn’t officially practiced in five days, or played in seven. Heck, he and his teammates started their day in Calgary, boarding a 6:30 a.m. flight that marks a significant departure from an NHL game day routine. Yet, he shone.
Once again, he proved to be as reliable as the league has, as far as backups are concerned. Or should we start the debate once again on what exactly his status is in terms of starting in Cowtown?
We’ll save it for another day… but he’s their starter.
As he so often does during play, Rittich was seen kissing his goalpost after Tyler Myers rang a shot off it in the second period. One of his finest moments came midway through the second when a sprawling Rittich anticipated a cross-ice pass by Byfuglien to Little that the 26-year-old Rittich somehow kept out.
Two other dandies on Nikolaj Ehlers and Little in the third solidified his hold on First Star of the game honours. His 35 saves improved his record to 12-4-2, with a save percentage almost at .930.
REAL-ISH DEAL NEAL
Prior to Johnny Gaudreau’s first two goals it appeared the best Flames forward was James Neal. It wasn’t just wishful thinking – he had three of the Flames six shots on goal in the first period, including a breakaway chance that drew a penalty on Byfuglien.
The man who has played with 37 different line combinations (that’s an actual stat) so far this season has now gone 23 games in a row without a snipe, dating back to his third of the season Nov. 1, against Colorado.
Michael Frolik returned to the lineup following a lengthy ankle injury, but was relegated to the fourth line while Sam Bennett kept his job on the second unit with Mikael Backlund and Matthew Tkachuk … Quine had a very solid outing on the third line, but will be remembered for his horrific pass through the middle of his own zone to Adam Lowry that the Jets youngster immediately buried from the high slot. It was the kind of pass coaches at every level of hockey shun every time it’s attempted. He knew immediately he’d goofed big time … After a slow start, Noah Hanifin has done a good job the last 20 games making his presence be known. Thursday night was no different as an inadvertent knee to the head of Connor Hellebuyck was followed soon thereafter by a hit on Blake Wheeler that sent the Jets star awkwardly into the boards, for a slow recovery … It will be interesting to see if Travis Hamonic’s middle knuckle on his left wrist needs medical help as the Flames warrior blocked a Mark Scheifele shot that had him checking his hand repeatedly on the bench.