Flames’ Johnny Gaudreau rediscovers scoring touch on new line

Calgary Flames forward Johnny Gaudreau walks in and fakes out his former teammate David Rittich and scores the overtime winner to give the Flames a 3-2 win over the Toronto Maple Leafs.

If only it was as simple as Johnny Gaudreau and Darryl Sutter make it sound.

Asked how Gaudreau has managed to regain the scoring touch that eluded him the first month of Sutter’s tenure, the coach was quick to respond.

“Because he’s shooting the puck more,” said Sutter. “Most of it was 5-on-5 related. When he doesn’t score, if you look at his 5-on-5 numbers, it’s because he doesn’t get shots 5-on-5. He’s enough of a high-end player that if he gets shots he’s going to score. He can play those percentages as well as, if not better than, anyone in the league.”

Gaudreau’s team-leading 18 goals matches the total he had last year, when he played 20 more games.

It puts him on a pace to score 30 in a full season, which would be six goals off his career high set in 2018.

A surprisingly respectable pace in the midst of a horrific season for the Flames.

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You would have had a hard time convincing anyone he’d be anywhere near a career number when he was struggling the first 14 games under Sutter, scoring twice and adding two helpers as the Flames faded from the playoff race.

The new dump-and-chase, defence-first system didn’t seem to fit Gaudreau’s game.

Fast forward to Wednesday night when Gaudreau hopes to extend a seven-game point streak with a little help from his friends.

“Kind of got a little stale there with the old linemates,” said Gaudreau, when asked to explain his recent offensive surge. “Playing with a couple new guys, obviously a couple of really skilled players in Chucky (Matthew Tkachuk) and Lindy (Elias Lindholm). I’m sure that’s got a lot to do with it.”

Indeed, Gaudreau’s new life without Sean Monahan by his side has seen his trio play like the top line this team has been missing most of the season.

Goals are still hard to come by for a Flames team that could be mathematically eliminated from the playoff race Wednesday.

But Gaudreau’s line has done well to create sustained pressure in the offensive zone the last few weeks — something his line wasn’t generating while playing alongside Monahan and Brett Ritchie. While in the zone he is practicing what the coach is preaching by putting the puck on the net.

“Obviously shoot more, like he says — something I need to be better at throughout my career,” said Gaudreau of his altered mindset. “I’ve gotten a lot of good opportunities throughout this year to shoot the puck and I’ve found the net a decent amount of times. When the shot is there I’m going to take it, but when the pass is there I’m going to make the play and pass the puck.”

He always has and probably always will, which is why he’s one of the game’s premiere playmakers.

However, there’s plenty to be said about the element of surprise when a man with a pass-first reputation like his opts to wire it top shelf.

It explains how he has cobbled together the highest shooting percentage of his career this year at 18.6 per cent — more than double last year’s rate.

“For a lot of guys at the high end of the assists (leaders) they look to pass instead of shoot,” acknowledged Sutter. “At the same time when you’re playing on a team that doesn’t have a lot of scorers, and deep down he is, the more he shoots, the better he is.”

Judged throughout his career entirely on production, Sutter insists he’s seen growth from Gaudreau in other areas of late.

“There’s a lot more to the game than just scoring,” said Sutter, whose club enters Wednesday’s tilt with the Jets a full 10 points behind fourth-place Montreal with six games remaining.

“Producing is not just scoring, it’s the 200-foot part on good teams and making sure even-strength minutes are good ones. He’s wanted to do that, and do more of it, and I think he’s done a good job of it.”

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