Down a goal and a defenceman early in their biggest game of the year, the Calgary Flames needed something to cling to as the storm rolled through.
Punished repeatedly by a big, motivated Montreal Canadiens club that knocked Noah Hanifin from the game and left several others getting up slowly, few would have guessed the Flames’ response would come from the smallest player on the ice.
Yet there was Johnny Gaudreau, speeding up the ice as part of a quick transition made possible by a Matthew Tkachuk pass, getting a step on Jon Merrill and beating Cayden Primeau with a top-corner gem every kid dreams of.
Johnny Hockey... WHAT A SHOT. pic.twitter.com/xQGMRdCi6M
— Sportsnet (@Sportsnet) April 24, 2021
It came with only 31 seconds remaining in a period in which the Habs had otherwise done well to sustain the obvious pushback following Friday’s loss.
“It was huge,” said Derek Ryan, whose team needed something to turn its fortunes around in a 1-0 game.
“I would say it was similar to Mangy’s power-play goal in the last game. When you get that goal in the last couple minutes of a period where you’re kind of on your heels a little bit and then all of a sudden you feel good about yourselves coming back into the locker room. Huge. Hockey is a game of momentum and those goals are definitely speaking toward that.”
It kickstarted a three-goal spree in which Milan Lucic scored minutes into the second and Gaudreau followed three minutes later with the eventual game-winner, converting a brilliant centring pass by the aforementioned Andrew Mangiapane in a 5-2 win Saturday that the Flames absolutely needed to have.
Suddenly, with back-to-back wins against the fourth-place team they’re chasing, the Flames are just one win away from the improbable three-game sweep they needed to get within two points of the Canadiens.
Right now they’re four back and the Habs have a game in hand, which makes Monday’s game as intriguing as any Calgary hockey fan could have hoped for when the team was losing eight of nine weeks back.
“It’s interesting, you guys are all saying how close we are and how important the games were, but two weeks ago you were saying they weren’t important,” said an increasingly defiant coach Darryl Sutter, whose tolerance for the media is already at an all-time low.
“We’ll just keep it in house and go about our business.”
Asked about the excitement level in the dressing room after the game, Gaudreau was realistic.
“A little excited after the game, but move on,” said the winger who picked a good time to have his first two-goal outing since Game 5.
“We’re nowhere close to where we want to be. We can’t get our hopes up too, too much. Every game is important the remainder of the season here, especially against this team.”
Asked if he felt better about the team’s chances after two-straight gritty wins, he paused.
“It’s right there for us,” he said.
“We play against Vancouver four more times and Montreal one more time. If we take care of ourselves and keep playing the way we have been playing the last few games we have a real good shot to make a push here.”
Hanifin’s injury came five minutes into a heavy-hitting affair in which he crumpled awkwardly after initiating a hit next to the Flames' bench. Replays showed what appeared to be an ankle buckling before he hit his head when crashing down. He was wobbly as he was helped off the ice, setting up a busy night for the five remaining defencemen.
“It was tough to see him go down like that, hopefully he’s all right,” said Mark Giordano, who logged 27 minutes of ice time while the others ranged from 20 to 28 minutes.
“I think you have to give guys like Stoney (Michael Stone), Ras (Rasmus Andersson) and Juuso (Valimaki) a lot of credit because they stepped up and played big minutes tonight. We kept our shifts short and that’s what you have to do.”
What Giordano was proudest of the last two outings was how well his team has nursed third-period leads, including Saturday’s 3-2 edge going into the final frame before Brett Ritchie added an insurance marker with 15 minutes remaining.
“Lots of positives, but every one you win now makes the next one that much more important, so Monday is huge,” said Giordano, whose club got several key stops from Jacob Markstrom, who made 30 saves.
“Guys are upbeat, but realistically we know we’re four points out of a playoff spot and they have a game-in-hand on us. We’ve got to try and run the table and go one game at a time.”
It seems all the more possible given the team has won five of its last seven and six of eight against Montreal.
“Honestly, I think we’ve been playing good hockey for a while now,” said Giordano.
“The difference is we’re getting leads and holding onto leads and burying some of our chances. Hopefully we can continue to get rewarded.”
Ryan was once again one of the Flames’ unsung heroes, setting up two goals on the fourth line before providing an important reminder afterwards.
“That game Monday is huge, no bigger than these last two have been,” said Ryan.
“On that same note, we’ve got to find that game against other teams, not just Montreal. Playoff hockey – that’s what it comes down to.”