Running out of ideas, line combinations and motivators, the Calgary Flames tore a page out of an old playbook to get back on track Saturday afternoon.
Coach Geoff Ward dusted off the lines he used last year to help the team snap a lengthy offensive slump with a 6-3 win over the Ottawa Senators.
How long the trios - or the success - will last is anyone’s guess for a team leading the league in line changes and inconsistency.
But for one day the fan fury and finger-pointing in Calgary will subside thanks to a spirited effort that addressed a long list of issues facing the Flames of late, topped by their inability to score.
Ward had reunited Elias Lindholm with Johnny Gaudreau and Sean Monahan late in Thursday’s 6-1 loss to the Senators, while also putting Mikael Backlund’s 3M Line back together with Matthew Tkachuk and Andrew Mangiapane.
After scoring just eight goals in their last six games, the Flames saw five of their top-six forwards find the net, including Backlund who scored for the first time in 10 outings as part of a three-point outing.
“I think our first three lines are the same as last year’s bubble and there is good chemistry in there with all those lines,” said Mangiapane, whose eighth goal of the month was the first shorthanded tally of his career and the team’s season.
“We were rolling today and you saw it. I know for our line we’re comfortable talking to each other and I think that’s how it should be. We have to just continue building chemistry with those four lines.”
The only top-sixer not to score was Gaudreau, who had two assists, as the top two lines combined for 11 points in a game the visitors led 2-0 less than five minutes in.
Struggling most of the year with their starts, the Flames finished the opening period with a season-high 20 shots on goal and a 3-1 lead they did well to protect the rest of the way.
The solid good start came following a warmup in which captain Mark Giordano could be seen loudly urging on a bunch that has struggled to stay even-keeled through the early parts of a season in which the Flames have been one of the league’s most schizophrenic outfits.
The offensive outburst caps an 11-game run in which the Flames hadn’t scored more than four goals, ranking them 24th in the league in goals per game.
Thus, Ward went old school with the lines.
“We just felt they brought some energy to the game when we put them back together in the last game, so we felt it might give us the start we were looking for today and it certainly did,” said Ward, whose club picked up its second regulation win in its last nine games.
“We talked about it earlier in the season. We’re confident with those lines – we know they work. We feel good with them. We wanted to try and explore something else to see if there’s potentially a better lineup. But we know that’s a good fit, there’s chemistry between those guys having played together for a long period of time. Certainly, they showed it today. Sometimes a little bit of comfort and some old faces is all you need to get things going the other way.”
The timing was right, as line matching isn’t an issue against the league’s youngest squad.
One wonders if this is a long-term solution given the move to put Lindholm on a separate line was made to take pressure off Monahan’s line when the intensity picks up in the playoffs.
These Flames need to get there first.
They took a step in that direction by moving into a fourth-place tie with Montreal with the win.
Aided by the familiarity they built on all last season and through the playoffs, the top two lines were complemented by a third unit centered by Sam Bennett and flanked by Milan Lucic and Dillon Dube.
It was the Flames' best line in the postseason, and while they didn’t score Saturday Bennett was 71% in the faceoff circle and Lucic added jam by accepting – and promptly winning - a fight with Austin Watson right after the Flames went up 2-0.
The Flames energy got an early boost when Juuso Valimaki celebrated like a schoolboy after opening the scoring with his first of the year. It was only the second of his career, with his only other coming Oct. 17, 2018.
“Honestly, that’s how we’ve got to start every game,” said the young defenceman.
“We talked about it a lot and it has kind of stayed in the talking stage. We haven’t really been able to do it. So to be able to do it will probably give us confidence that we can do it.”
David Rittich returned to form, making 31 saves in his fourth start in five-and-a-half days while Jacob Markstrom has been on injured reserve with an upper-body injury. Markstrom is eligible to return to the lineup Sunday, if healthy, potentially opening up options for Monday’s third of four-straight meetings with the Senators.
After being shut out in their initial meeting Thursday, both Tkachuk brothers scored in this one, with Matthew adding an assist. Brady’s goal, as well as those scored by Colin White and Drake Batherson, came on the power play.