The term, “bend-but-not-break” is often used to describe the type of desperate defending the Calgary Flames employed to preserve Friday night’s win in Toronto.
However, it also paints a picture of what Johnny Gaudreau went through when plowed awkwardly into the boards by Leafs defenceman Justin Holl.
The latter was handled brilliantly by the Flames and the former allowed the team to take advantage of two fortuitous bounces to preserve a 4-3 bounce back win that should do wonders to help their surging confidence grow.
As part of the team’s renewed emphasis on covering one another in every way possible, Juuso Valimaki immediately sprung to Gaudreau’s defence after the tiny winger turned into the hellacious Holl hit that was an awkward enough distance from the boards to inflict an obvious measure of pain. Valimaki drew the only penalty on the exchange, prompting the Flames to kill the type of penalty team’s take additional pride in.
Soon thereafter Holl accepted Tkachuk’s invitation to fight, but not before it appeared the Leafs defender awkwardly attempted to reclaim his gloves as if the scrap has been cancelled.
“I didn’t really know what was going on – we were going to fight and then he went to pick up his gloves, and then I wasn’t going to let him miss that opportunity,” said Tkachuk, who was asked what the message was with the fight.
“Don’t touch Johnny, I guess? I don’t think a lot of guys liked the hit, whether it was clean or whether it was dirty. It was a little ways from the boards and he could have gotten hurt.”
As for why he took it upon himself to spark the fight, Tkachuk explained, “I know he’s probably not fighting Looch (Milan Lucic), Benny (Sam Bennett) or Ritch (Brett Ritchie.)”
Tkachuk’s first goal in nine outings opened the game and set the tone for what appeared early to be the sort of shootout Sutter insists his team isn’t capable of winning too often in the star-studded north.
A 3-2 lead after the first period was erased by a Mitch Marner goal early in the second that Mark Giordano answered midway through the evening with a power-play blast that bounced in off Jake Muzzin. Much like how the Leafs won a game earlier this year with a pair of fortuitous bounces in Calgary, Giordano’s ended up being the game-winner in a contest that finished with four intense minutes of penalty killing in the third that saw Giordano accumulate the bulk of his five blocks.
“He was our fearless leader, willing to get in front of at least two or three big shot blocks there at the end,” said Derek Ryan, who put the Flames up 2-0 on the hosts a mere seven minutes into the game.
“He was amped up and I thought he brought his ‘A’ game. That’s what we’ve talked about in our dressing room, everybody trying to be anywhere from two per cent to five per cent better, and I think he was more than that tonight. He was our leader and helped us gut out those two points.”
His selflessness typified a Flames performance that gave the Flames its fourth win in five games under Darryl Sutter, coming on the heels of a humbling setback against Edmonton Wednesday.
The Toronto-born captain said afterward he was most proud of the blocks, as they were integral in preserving a crucial win that also saw Jacob Markstrom rebound with a 24-save effort that included a diving effort to stone Auston Matthews late.
“I thought we played really well - we checked well and gave up very little odd-man rushes,” said Sutter, who pointed out most of Toronto’s chances came off three unsuccessful power plays.
“It was not a track meet game at all. I think we have a team that can play together and if we eliminate little mistakes in our game and stay out of the penal box we can play with them. Look at the third period, we killed two penalties and they were two of our centremen that kill penalties in the box, and we got through it. So, the mindset was right. Hopefully, we can use this as a stepping stone.”
That’s what is needed if the Flames, who’ve won four of five under Sutter, can continue closing the gap on the fourth-place Canadiens who sit two points up after losing in overtime Friday to a Vancouver team still one up on Calgary.
Not that they’ll have much time to savour the win against the north’s top-ranked team before playing them again Saturday, but you can bet the Flames went to sleep feeling better about themselves, save for the extensive bruising.
In a game that saw the Flames block the bulk of 29 shots in a frantic third period in which they somehow limited the Leafs to just eight shots, Noah Hanifin came up lame after falling, Sam Bennett had his hand taped after blocking a shot, Tkachuk needed repairs after the fight and Gaudreau’s wincing was continual following his blast.
Prices were paid, as Sutter demands.
“Huge win – every game is big now so every two points is huge,” said Ryan, whose opportunistic club handed the Leafs their sixth loss in seven outings.
“We fought pretty hard tonight for those two points against a really good team. Our penalty kill came up big in the third and I thought we defended a little bit better than we did against Edmonton, but still room for improvement. The guys just battled and dug deep to get a nice road win.”