Flames' Gaudreau shows added layers in his game during early turnaround

Sportsnet's Ryan Leslie and Eric Francis take a look at David Rittich's performance and the Flames needing more from their netminder and that Matthew Tkachuk picked up his game despite the loss to the Winnipeg Jets.

Asked about the remarkable return to form of Johnny Gaudreau, Andrew Mangiapane couldn’t resist taking a dig at the man sitting next to him.

“He’s a little guy but he’s pretty good,” smiled the pint-sized Mangiapane, who’d been labeled “The Little Man” seconds earlier by Gaudreau.

“Every time he gets the puck he’s making things happen.”

As he proceeded to discuss Gaudreau’s contributions, Gaudreau turned to start circling his two index fingers, urging his teammate to go on, and on, and on.

A chuckling Mangiapane resisted, but the list of things Gaudreau has layered into his game this season is indeed lengthy.

Owner of the league’s longest active point streak, the 27-year-old’s nine-game spree is the fourth-longest in Flames history to start a season, just two games behind Bob MacMillan’s record.

Hardly shocking for a lad who posted 99 points two seasons earlier.

However, it’s how he’s gone about becoming so prolific again that is so impressive.

In Tuesday night’s 3-2 loss to Winnipeg, Gaudreau extended his streak with a move torn from the pages of men 70 pounds heavier. A split-second after Matthew Tkachuk was stopped on a breakaway attempt, Gaudreau fought off Josh Morrissey to crash the crease for a rebound he rang off the crossbar as he fell into goalie Laurent Brossoit. Tkachuk promptly shoveled in the loose puck.

Mucking it up in the paint is not exactly the way the 5-foot-9, 165-pound playmaker has gone about becoming a point-per-game threat over eight NHL seasons.

He’s done it with soft hands and a creativity that makes him one of the game’s most exciting players to watch when he’s engaged and controlling the play.

Following a tough year that was punctuated by another sub-par playoff, Gaudreau arrived in camp this winter with a noticeable focus on returning to the form that made him a Hart Trophy candidate in 2019.

An increased dedication to defence, and a brimming confidence on a power play unit that scored in the team’s first seven games, have catapulted him back into a zone in which he’s comfortable enough to show rare glimpses of personality while at the podium.

It’s all part of a vibe the recently-engaged winger carried into the room following an off-season of speculation and introspection.

“When you have a stretch of time it’s not going the way you want, successful people dig in and find the reasons why,” said Flames coach Geoff Ward, who saw his star player’s point total dip by 41 points last year. “The great players work on their weaknesses. Johnny certainly did that. He’s having fun and smiling coming to the rink. The biggest thing for him is his attention to the defensive details. It’s much improved and allowed him to play with the puck more.

"Obviously the power play has been productive for us early, and he’s the main guy on the power play. Both those things have given him a lot of confidence and given him a lot more puck touches, and as a result when he has time and space with the puck he usually does good things with it. It’s been a great start for him.”

Not known for being speedy out of the blocks, Gaudreau’s sixth goal of the season came in Game 8.

Last year it took 30 games, whereas the previous year it took 13 games as part of his career-high 36-goal campaign.

His 11 points have him miles behind league leaders like Connor McDavid (24) and Leon Draisaitl (22), but his streak is one game longer than both Oilers stars.

His shooting percentage (27.3 per cent) is second only to Joe Pavelski among scoring leaders, and he’s just two assists away from becoming the tenth Flame to record 300 helpers with the organization.

Of all the impressive stats Gaudreau has pieced together of late, the one he went out of his way to point out recently was his defensive diligence five-on-five alongside his perennial linemate and pal, Sean Monahan.

“Me and Monny are playing really good in our defensive zone, playing smart,” the former Lady Byng winner said. “I don’t think we’ve been out on the ice for a five-on-five goal against, so we feel really comfortable with that and we’re getting our chances offensively.”

In fact, the duo had only been scored on once until it happened again Tuesday.

But twice in nine games is miles ahead of the pace they were on last year when Gaudreau was on the ice for 42 five-on-five goals against in 70 outings.

Some of that defensive improvement has to do with the better line matchups Gaudreau and Monahan have had since Elias Lindholm moved to centre to form the team’s 1A line with Dillon Dube and Tkachuk.

However, that move left them without a right-wing fixture, meaning their success this year has come despite a rotating cast of hopefuls.

“Me and Monny feel really good together and we feel we have more we can push together and create things for our line, whoever is playing with us,” said Gaudreau, whose disgustingly deft shootout winner on Monday night demonstrated the type of nerve and poise he’s playing with.

“I still feel like I have a little more in the tank and can push harder.”

If so, you can bet Mangiapane and the rest of the hockey world will have plenty more to say about the rebound of no. 13.

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