VANCOUVER – It is hard to think of two elite offensive teammates as different in style as Matthew Tkachuk and Johnny Gaudreau.
But the answer to Calgary Flames coach Geoff Ward’s public question this week about the identity of his team probably lies in some combination of Tkachuk and Gaudreau, who in their own ways were outstanding on Saturday in a 6-2 dismantlement of the Vancouver Canucks.
The game between Pacific Division rivals, both on three-game losing skids, began with playoff intensity. But by the third period, the Flames were the only ones who looked like a playoff team.
Two nights after Ward roasted players following a loss to Nashville over their willingness – or unwillingness – to compete, battle and play with an identity, the Flames outscored the Canucks 4-0 over the final two periods to move within three points of Vancouver and back into a playoff spot.
The Canucks themselves are threatening to fall into their own identity crisis as they continue to struggle on special teams and bleed high-quality scoring chances. Even if Saturday’s loss was their first at Rogers Arena in 10 games since Dec. 17, the Canucks are suddenly on a four-game losing streak (0-3-1) for the first time in two months.
“I think we have to tighten up everywhere, to be honest with you,” Canucks captain Bo Horvat said. “We’ve got to be better in the grey areas, just chipping pucks deep, getting pucks out of our (blue) line. We lost that battle tonight.
“Just get back to our game. It’s a matter, again, of sticking to our systems and every guy buying in and doing little things right in order to win. They played a good game tonight, they played well; you’ve got to give them credit. But we’ve got to be a lot better.”
If a game’s turning point can occur in the opening minute, Tkachuk changed the direction for everyone when he challenged and fought Canucks veteran J.T. Miller as soon as the puck touched the ice after Tanner Pearson made it 1-0 for Vancouver at 34 seconds.
The Flames scored twice in the next 11 1/2 minutes, Tkachuk himself giving them their first lead at 12:08 when he legally knocked the puck in with his skate after being stopped by Jacob Markstrom’s pad following a pass from Gaudreau while the Canucks were changing.
“Just tried to give the team a spark,” Tkachuk said. “We’re down 1-0 30 seconds in, losing three straight. I just tried to do something, you know?”
“Every single guy on the bench was going crazy,” said Flames forward Dillon Dube, who scored the game-winner and added two assists. “That got our momentum going and said we were here for business. He was big for us. That fight of Chucky, every guy on the bench was emotionally invested after that. That was a heated game. I think we brought it tonight.”
The Canucks thought they brought it, too, but the Flames took it away.
After Vancouver’s Adam Gaudette tied it 2-2 late in the first period on a geometrically inexplicable bounce off the end boards when Tkachuk tried to chip the puck behind his goal, Dube made it 3-2 at 2:51 of the second, peeling away from defenceman Tyler Myers and beating Markstrom with a screened wrister from above the right-wing circle.
Milan Lucic’s redirect of Mikael Backlund’s outstanding shot-pass made it 4-2 on a power play at 6:48 of the third period, before Gaudreau beautifully set up Sean Monahan at 16:01 and Tobias Rieder scored into an empty net.
The whole period looked like the answer to Ward’s uncomfortable questions.
“I think we really needed that,” Dube said of Ward’s criticism on Thursday. “Desperation at this time of year is the biggest thing. We just kind of listened to him and had a good practice (on Friday). . . and just knew that tonight was a must win.”
“Honest to God, I don’t really listen (to media),” Tkachuk claimed. “I don’t watch a ton of TV and I don’t read Twitter and that stuff. We know he wasn’t happy from our meetings and stuff. And we weren’t happy.
“It was a playoff-type period for us (in the third), going in with the lead, 3-2, getting a real timely power-play goal, which we want to continue to get more of. We just played a really good brand of hockey. . . and made them come through a bunch of us.”
The Canucks’ power play returned to hibernation, going 0-for-3, while the Flames scored on their only advantage.
Vancouver opened its six-game homestand – the Canucks are celebrating Sedins Week, which will see Daniel and Henrik’s numbers retired on Wednesday – with Elias Pettersson back in their lineup after missing Thursday’s loss in Minnesota with a lower-body bruise.
But Canucks winger Brock Boeser, the Calder Trophy runner-up before Petterson won the rookie award last season, suffered what appeared to be a significant shoulder or arm injury in an awkward third-period collision with Andrew Mangiapane.
And the Flames, already without injured captain Mark Giordano, lost key blueliner Travis Hamonic in the second period. Ward offered no details post-game about Hamonic’s condition.
The Flames, at least, finishing with something to show for it.
“I thought we were emotionally engaged,” Ward said. “I thought our compete level was good, but I thought we were also emotionally controlled and I thought our details were good. So there’s a lot of things in that game that we certainly can build on and I thought the guys did a great job staying together.”