Monahan, Flames overcome pre-game COVID-19 scare to secure crucial win

Sean Monahan had a goal and two assists to give the Calgary Flames the edge over the Montreal Canadiens 4-2.

Sean Monahan had his pregame meal and nap, as he has hundreds of times before.

Despite the fact the team’s morning skate had been cancelled due to the team’s first positive COVID-19 test, Monahan and his teammates tried to stay focused on a game they weren’t sure would be played.

Tricky, as no game they’ve played this season was bigger than this, the first of three against a Montreal team they’re so desperately chasing for the North Divison’s final playoff spot.

With the league confirming just four hours before puck drop that the game would proceed despite Josh Leivo’s positive test, Monahan’s game day routine included ensuring his longtime pal was faring okay.

“I talked to him and checked in and will again here in a minute,” said Monahan after scoring the winner in a crucial 4-2 win over the Canadiens. “You never want a guy on your team to get sick or injured or anything like that. It sucks he’s not here with us, but he’s going to be alright. It was a strange day. We didn’t know what was going on. We were told what to do and we were getting ready all day to play a game and it ended up working out.”

It sure did, thanks to one thing the Flames could always rely on prior to this season -- Monahan and Johnny Gaudreau.

With a must-win game tied 2-2 in the final period the duo put the hosts up ahead for good after Gaudreau spotted Monahan from behind the net and found him in the slot with a perfect pass that was buried past Jake Allen with 14 minutes remaining.

“I threw it down low to Johnny and when both defencemen take a peak at him quick, if you’re open he’s going to find you and that’s what happened,” said Monahan of his 45th career game-winner, which was sandwiched by a pair of assists.

“He’s probably given me 150 of those -- I’m pretty used to that. We played together for years and when we play together you expect to get looks and you’ve got to expect to put the puck in the net.”

It was only the 10th time this season Monahan has scored, which is why the two have been split up the last handful of games for the first time in their seven years together.

They were on the ice together only because coach Darryl Sutter opted to play with only 11 forwards, and they were simply next up in the rotation.

The team responded with a swarming, speedy effort that included a playoff-type physicality that limited the Habs to just 19 shots on goal. That total doesn’t include the two shots off the iron in the third that could have jeopardized the Flames' season before Elias Lindholm scored into an empty net.

It leaves the Flames six points back and sets up the possibility a sweep Saturday and Monday against Montreal could leave Calgary just two points out of fourth, albeit with the Canadiens having a game in hand.

There’s zero margin for error against a team the Flames have beaten five of seven times this year.

“We have to look at it as just one game at a time, no sense looking ahead,” said Andrew Mangiapane, who had a first-period goal and an assist on Dillon Dube’s opener. “Play it when it happens. Obviously everyone knows what situation we’re in. We’ve got to make up ground and we’re trying to catch these guys and every game is key.”

The Flames announced earlier in the day they wouldn’t have their morning skate as a precaution after a then-unnamed player tested positive following Thursday’s testing. The league revealed Leivo as that player in their 3 p.m. MT COVID-19 protocol list update.

“I spoke with him before the game today and he was fine, he had no symptoms,” said Sutter. “But he obviously had a positive test. Other than that the team and the league will handle it.”

You can bet the league, in consultation with Flames doctors and other officials, spent the bulk of the day debating the merits of postponing the game for fear other players had been exposed to Leivo in practice.

After all, a positive test on the Canadiens earlier in the season shut them down for a week.

With the Flames press release saying earlier in the day all other players and coaches had tested negative, further tests clearly gave the league confidence they could move forward with the game.

Sutter opted to play Nikita Nesterov as the team’s seventh defenceman instead of playing Buddy Robinson as the 12th forward.

“The rationale would be that we have 12 and Buddy has played 24 minutes in four games, kind of a tough position to put him in,” said Sutter.

The Flames know all too well about tough positions these days.

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