A mere 999 games after opening his career with a premeditated fight against Brad Winchester, Milan Lucic had a hunch the same script was about to unfold.
With Scott Sabourin inserted into the Leafs lineup for the first time this season, and itching to make an impression, Lucic happily obliged.
“Funny, when I saw him in the lineup I knew there was probably 100 per cent chance he was going to ask me to fight,” said the beaming 32-year-old at the conclusion of a 1,000th game that was as memorable as his first.
“They’d just scored, and I said ‘yes.’ It’s another one of those premeditated ones I guess.”
The Flames winger ended the fight with an impressive knockdown and a cut over his right brow that did little to dampen the backyard celebration his wife and three young kids had with a small group of friends to celebrate daddy’s day.
The bout was the 78th of his career, coming 10 minutes into a game in which he’d helped the Flames open the scoring with a world-class pass to Juuso Valimaki.
It set the stage for what could have been his fourth Gordie Howe hat trick, the last coming in 2012.
“I just wish I didn’t miss the net on the shift before the fight, otherwise I would have had the Gordie in three shifts,” smiled the 14-year veteran. “It would have been nice – a cool storyline. It’s a great achievement and it makes it even better when you get a huge win.”
On a night when Flames fans tuned in to follow significant storylines involving his milestone and David Rittich’s Toronto debut, it was Lucic whose club helped author the better finish thanks to an overtime beauty by Johnny Gaudreau.
In alone on Rittich thanks to a nifty play by Elias Lindholm, Gaudreau put on a clinic that ended with a forehand deke that spoiled Rittich’s whirlwind evening.
Asked if the former Flames backup had seen the move before, Gaudreau smiled.
“I don’t know — we had a couple shootouts in the last few practices before the deadline there and I scored a couple on him, so I felt comfortable there,” said Gaudreau following the 3-2 win. “I don’t normally go to my forehand and I think I kind of fooled him a little bit there.”
Flipping over unto his belly before scrambling up to skate briskly off the ice in defeat, the back of Rittich’s Flames pads and gloves flashed of red. His mask and the piping on the front of his pads and blocker had been tactfully covered by Leafs blue that had been applied hours before his start.
In a rare move aimed at keeping him in the NHL’s bubble, the colourful Czech netminder had flown to Toronto on the Flames’ charter flight.
“There was definitely some fun happening there, as far as pokes and jabs,” said Lucic of the somewhat awkward carriage of convenience following Rittich’s trade to Toronto Sunday night for a third-round pick.
“Obviously with the circumstances, you don’t really experience something like that before, flying with an ex-teammate or someone from another team. It was kind of nice and cool to have him around and wish him a proper goodbye.”
The ever-popular Rittich concurred.
“It was OK — a lot of chirps there,” he said of the commute. “Some guys didn’t hold back, I expect that. But at least I had a chance to say goodbye to all of them.”
When they all reconvened at Scotiabank Arena Tuesday night it was friends off, as a Matthew Tkachuk snow job was answered with a Rittich whack to the legs of the man who used to punctuate every Rittich win with a leap into the netminder’s arms.
“If you know him, he does that a lot,” said Rittich, nonplussed. “So it didn’t surprise me. He’s a great player and he’s hard in front of the net.”
Asked if he wondered if he’d have to step in for a few words with Rittich, Lucic laughed.
“I think Ritter is smart enough to stay away from me,” he said.
As part of a day that opened with all his teammates wearing 1000CH t-shirts and hats, the Flames gave Lucic the rookie treatment with a solo lap to open warmup.
“It’s funny, it’s something me and (Mark Giordano) talked about last night,” said Lucic, whose club raced off to Montreal after the game for the first of five remaining dates against Montreal Wednesday. “It wasn’t really a thing when I was a rookie to get the single lap, so I never got to do it. So we thought no better time to do it than tonight.”
Another nod to Lucic saw every Flames player take part in warmup sans buckets.
“A great teammate, a guy a lot of us in our locker room look up to,” said Gaudreau, whose club is now six points back of Montreal, which has three games in hand. “So to be a part of his 1,000th game and get a win for him was a great night.”
Let’s see what Lucic and his merry men do for an encore.