More shots than a New Year’s Eve party.
That’s how the Calgary Flames celebrated their first game of 2022, taking a club record 26 shots on goal in a second period Sunday that put on display exactly how Darryl Sutter’s team wants — and needs — to play.
While some still mistake their game as being “defence-first,” the true calling card of this club is a tenacious forecheck that, when fully engaged, keeps the opposition on its heels in its own zone.
Mission accomplished Sunday, giving the Flames a 5-1 win in Chicago for their second straight victory since the team emerged from its shocking Covid break.
The ability to rest and recharge through a 19-day break in action due to Omicron should continue to serve the team well.
“I think the second period just showed how we can play when we’re playing good hockey and have a lot of shots and create a lot of chances,” said Elias Lindholm, whose power-play goal smack dab in the middle of the second-period onslaught of shots proved to be the winner after snapping a 1-1 tie. “It was obviously a fun period to be a part of and we want to see more of that.
“The first period was slow from our side and we talked about it in between periods, that we need to come out better and get our game in order and play the way we used to.”
All four lines, including Lindholm’s all-world top unit, have been hellbent on making life miserable for opponents in their end of the ice by completing checks, taking away time and space, and turning forced turnovers into scoring opportunities.
On this night the Flames created 30 scoring chances (to the Hawks’ 16) at 5-on-5, adding up to 42 shots on Arvid Soderblom, who did well to keep the score close until the final few minutes of his first NHL start.
“For sure, I think when a lot of guys are good on the forecheck, and when everyone is on the same page, that’s usually how it goes,” said Lindholm of a 26-shot period matched only by a Flames outing from 1986.
“Guys are hard on the forecheck and relentless and from there we have a lot of chances and create a lot.”
Of course, it helps when one of the NHL’s best playmakers is on top of his game, as Johnny Gaudreau set up two more goals before scoring one himself.
It says plenty about how the Flames have pieced together the highest winning percentage in the Pacific division when a star like Gaudreau has his second-straight three-point outing overshadowed by a full, team effort that saw all but two Flames record shots on goal.
“The only thing we know about our schedule is that we play in two days again, so you’re really trying to get everybody back to speed,” said Sutter, whose club is slated for three games in four nights starting Tuesday against a Murderer’s Row of road games against the Panthers, Lightning and Hurricanes.
“And it’s not easy, so you have to rely on everybody. Everybody reacted different to the virus, so you’ve got to manage your way through it as a team and play smart.”
Rewarded for their 12 shots on goal, all three members of the Flames' top line scored, including Matthew Tkachuk who tied the game shortly after Alex DeBrincat opened the scoring in the first.
But this game was about a cast of characters including Dillon Dube, whose speed drew the penalty that led to Lindholm’s goal. Dube’s wheels also sprung him on a breakaway that forced Kirby Dach to haul him down, resulting in a penalty shot Dube was stopped on.
Mikael Backlund spearheaded the team’s perfect penalty kill, also adding a pair of breakaways he was unable to convert.
Jacob Markstrom made several timely stops as part of a 30-save effort, and Trevor Lewis scored a shorthanded goal that put the team up 3-1 in the second.
He also had a big blocked shot late in the game, moments before Oliver Kylington’s empty netter put the visitors up 4-1. Another patented Gaudreau top-shelfer over Soderblom’s glove punctuated the win.
“You could definitely feel the momentum change out there and it’s fun to play like that,” said Lewis of the second-period turnaround.
“We started moving our feet and getting in there and putting it behind their defencemen and that’s when we go on the forecheck. We turn a lot of pucks over when we get down there and we kind of feed off that.”
The Flames' next stop is Sunrise, Fla, where the storyline won’t be dominated anymore by Sam Bennett’s first chance to play against his former team.
Bennett lost that opportunity when he was suspended three games for an illegal hit to the head of Canadiens forward Cedric Paquette Saturday.
It’s a shame, as Bennett’s rebirth in Florida is something Flames fans have been watching closely.