CALGARY – There were plenty of questions surrounding Johnny Gaudreau as he entered the playoffs.
It’s the one that was asked after his Game 7 overtime winner Sunday night that was perhaps the easiest to answer.
Where did his short-side, roof job over Jake Oettinger 15 minutes into the extra frame rank amongst all his goals?
“Is that a question, really?” he smiled, still buzzing after being mobbed by teammates and shaking hands with the Dallas Stars.
“C’mon. There’s no bigger stage than what we just had there. It was really special for me. I was really excited. You dream about stuff like that, scoring in Game 7 in overtime.”
So much for talk of this being Gaudreau’s last game as a Flame.
Instead, it was perhaps his most memorable, scoring his second game-winner in the tightest of series to set up the first Battle of Alberta in 31 years.
He didn’t hoist the team on his shoulders like Connor McDavid, but when his team needed him most he was there, ending a torturous evening for a C of Red that stood on its feet for the bulk of an overtime frame that ended with the Flames 67th shot of the night finally beating Oettinger.
The roar or the crowd was as loud as anything the building has ever endured, which is fitting given the moment will go down in club history as one of its finest.
After all, the last time the Flames won a Game 7 at home it kickstarted the club’s lone Stanley Cup run 33 years earlier. It’s also the first time in seven years the Flames have won a round and just the third time in 33 years they’ve made it to the second round.
The fact that Gaudreau scored it was poetic justice, as Oettinger had No. 13’s number throughout the series, prompting Gaudreau to look skyward following one of his previous six shots.
The winner was a beauty, which it had to be to beat a goalie who challenged league history with his brilliance.
“I was just trying to put it on net,” said Gaudreau, of the rebound he converted from the side of the net.
“I mean, throughout the whole series most of the time you put it on net it’s not going in against this kid. I got a good look and it went over his shoulder there. That kid played pretty well the whole series.”
So did Gaudreau, who scraped and clawed his way through a tenacious Dallas defence to score two game-winners, add six assists and be the hero when it mattered most. He also assisted on Tkachuk’s goal.
That’s how legends are made.
Darryl Sutter said two days earlier Gaudreau had officially taken the next step, and on Sunday the 28-year-old winger proved it.
How poetic that in the absence of Chris Tanev he showed up for the game wearing an A on his jersey for the very first time as a Flame.
He became more than just a superstar this year, he became a leader.
And finishing off an epic game like Sunday’s is exactly the type of stuff leaders do.
“The C’s and A’s are decorations,” said Sutter.
“It’s what you do in the room and on the ice that’s important.”
What his team did all night long was dominate a Stars club that opened the scoring 40 seconds in, and took just 31 seconds to regain the lead after Tyler Toffoli tied it early in the second.
The Flames chased on the scoreboard but led in every other way, outshooting the Stars 26-4 in a second period in which Matthew Tkachuk’s first of the playoffs tied it 2-2 midway through the frame.
From there the tension was unbearable in a building that watched both teams hit the iron three times.
By night’s end the Flames had outshot the Stars 67-28, the largest shot differential in NHL Game 7 history and the second largest in the league’s playoff lore.
Yet, there was Joe Pavelski breaking in alone following a Flames power play, forcing Jacob Markstrom to make one of the many pivotal saves to prolong the extra session.
The Flames netminder won’t get nearly the credit he deserves for the role he played in the game or the series. But none of it is possible without him, especially considering how hard it is to make huge saves after going long stretches watching Oettinger stand on his head.
“(Oettinger) frustrated us because we couldn’t score, but we didn’t lose belief after all,” said Tkachuk, who was asked if it felt inevitable his team would eventually win a game it dominated.
“Or you could look at it like the other way, where it’s just not meant to be. It was tonight. We peppered him so much. One had to have gone in for us. Guys worked so hard. I said it this morning, I think that our team, the way we’re conditioned, work and wear teams down, we’re built for a Game 7 type of game. It took us until minute, almost, 80. It’s an important one for us.”
For the province.
“It’ll be exciting – it’s great for all of Alberta,” said Tkachuk, whose club was serenaded by a raucous crowd signing to Alberta Bound during handshakes.
“Honestly really haven’t allowed myself to think about it yet. It’s too fresh from this. I’m probably just going to enjoy this one tonight and turn the page tomorrow.”
After directing an incredible 129 shot attempts towards Oettinger, justice was served with Gaudreau’s winner.
“We deserved to win,” said Sutter, of a series somehow decided by one goal.
Well, actually, it wasn’t, making the accomplishment and the next opponent all the sweeter.
“I’ve been here for nine years and never had even a sniff of a chance to play them in the playoffs,” said Gaudreau, when asked about the Battle of Alberta.
“It’s pretty special. It’s going to be fun. It’s going to be good for the province, fun for them and us.”