Hart snub aside, Gaudreau's game continues ramping up in playoffs for Flames

Dallas Stars defenseman John Klingberg (3) deflects a shot by Calgary Flames left wing Johnny Gaudreau (13) during the second period of Game 3 of an NHL hockey Stanley Cup first-round playoff series. (Tony Gutierrez/AP)

DALLAS – He might not have received the nod as a Hart Trophy finalist Thursday, but Johnny Gaudreau got a new nickname and a primo endorsement instead.

"Johnny's been really good in the playoffs,” Flames coach Darryl Sutter said before unloading the biggie.

“For me, he's taken that step, 100 per cent. He did it during the season. He's done it during the playoffs. I'm proud of Johnny."

That step refers to his ability to remain as dominant and dangerous in the playoffs as he was during the regular season.

It’s a step many have talked about for years, as plenty questioned whether he is capable of being a difference-maker when the games matter most.

No, the low-scoring series he's in hasn't allowed him to score at the same rate. But he's an ever-present threat the Stars have had their hands full containing.

His five points haven’t come easy this spring, but he’s found a way to fight through the muck in a tight, defensive series in which real estate is harder to come by than Vancouver proper.

He’s created plenty of scoring chances for himself and linemates, only to be turned away by Stars goalie Jake Oettinger on all but one occasion.

And while no one will ever expect the 165-pound winger to throw his weight around, Gaudreau has been much more involved in the fabric of the game than in playoffs past. A commitment to being more of a defensive factor has him more engaged at both ends, leading to two significant head shots of late.

In the opening shift of Game 4, Gaudreau got up slowly after receiving an illegal check to the head. His response: The game-winning penalty shot and a primary assist to tie the series 2-2.

In Game 5, he took a deflected puck to the face as part of a painful zone entry attempt that also caused plenty of concern to fans as he left the ice.

He’s been caught with several other hits throughout the five-game battle with Dallas and hasn’t once shown up a ref by pulling the ol’ burning oven mitt following a slash to the hands.

He simply skates to the bench and prepares for the next shift.

Fighting through all that has the Artist Formerly Known as Johnny Hockey being looked at differently in the room.

"We actually joked about it in between periods, just telling him what a warrior he was,” said Blake Coleman before jumping on a charter to Dallas for Game 6. The Flames lead the series, 3-2.

“Jokes aside, he's taken some good licks. To his credit, it hasn't fazed him. He's gotten right back up and continued to play his game. I haven't been here in years’ past, but having one of your best skilled players show that toughness and grit goes a long way in the locker room, and I think he's definitely been leading by example, especially over the last few games here."

Coleman knows a thing or two about resilience, as does defenceman Chris Tanev, who doubled down on the new moniker.

"John's a warrior,” agreed Tanev.

“He comes to work every day and works his behind off. He does as much as anyone on the team. He'll do whatever it takes to win."

Despite finishing in the NHL scoring race with a career-high 115 points, Gaudreau wasn’t able to do enough to snag top-three billing in the Hart race, finishing somewhere behind finalists Auston Matthews, Connor McDavid and Igor Shesterkin.

With McDavid and Matthews a lock as finalists, it should come as no surprise the 28-year-old who toils in the middle of the night in Western Canada was unable to beat out a handful of others for third spot. Shesterkin starred under the glare of New York’s spotlight, while top five votes from the Professional Hockey Writers’ Association were split between the likes of Roman Josi, Jonathan Huberdeau, Kirill Kaprizov, Leon Draisaitl and Gaudreau, amongst others.

I had Gaudreau second on my ballot, as much for his finish and unmatched creativity as his consistency and newfound leadership.

He’s the reason both linemates hit the 40-goal mark with him.

His teammates are similarly swayed by seeing his magic up close.

"In our mind he is (a Hart Trophy finalist), for sure,” said Tanev, whose coach called Gaudreau one of the game's best 200-foot players earlier this year.

“He's done whatever's asked of him, and gone above and beyond to help this team get to where we are right now. I mean, I don't think he's too worried about (not being a nominee). He wants to win, and we're going to need him to continue to play as he's doing and continue to get better over the next few games.

"Johnny's been awesome, as he's been all year. He's been our best player all year, probably. He continues to play well right now. We're going to need him to continue to get better as we move on here."

Coleman agreed.

"I guess I'm biased because I see him all the time, but he's definitely one of the best players in the NHL,” said Coleman, whose club has a chance to close out Dallas Friday at American Airlines Center.

“He's what you buy tickets to watch. He's one of those players that's just so dynamic and he puts butts in seats. The season he had is incredible, obviously. I think Johnny would be the first to tell you he'd trade the Hart for a Cup any day, so we'll go with that."

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