Kraken’s Driedger shuts door on Flames in emotional return to NHL

Alex Wennberg scored the game-winning goal and Chris Driedger made 36 saves to lead the Seattle Kraken to a 2-1 win over the Calgary Flames.

CALGARY — These are the stories you cheer for — the tales that become all the more stirring during the holidays.

Nineteen months after making his last NHL start, Chris Driedger ended the most trying span of his career with an evening he’ll never forget.

Returning to the rink in which he was one of the Calgary Hitmen’s most successful netminders, the 29-year-old Manitoban stonewalled the Calgary Flames for his first start with the Kraken in two seasons.

Thirty of his 37 stops came in the final two periods of a game in which his team’s 2-1 win over the Flames came despite his team being under siege most of the evening.

The puck drop came exactly 11 hours after his team departed from Seattle, crossed a time zone and landed for their first skate in four days.

Yet, there was Driedger, robbing Elias Lindholm on a third-period power play chance as part of an evening of heartbreak for Flames fans that marked an emotional milestone for the netminder.

“It’s definitely some of the most adversity I’ve ever faced in my career,” said Driedger of an uphill battle that started with a torn ACL suffered in Canada’s gold medal game at the world championships two springs ago.

“It’s been a long road, a lot of hours spent with the medical staff putting in hours when the guys are skating and kind of doing my own thing and watching from the stands.

“To come out and finally get back in, it was pretty emotional.”

No better place for him to get back in the saddle than the ‘Dome where the third-round pick played three full seasons for the Hitmen.

“I felt great, especially to do it here in Calgary… I’ve logged a lot of minutes here in my junior days — it was just really incredible,” said Driedger.

“It was a long process, do the rehab, go to the minors, start this year in the minors, it’s a lot of adversity and it feels good to get this one.”

Driedger didn’t play a single NHL game last season, ending a lengthy recovery from knee surgery with a 14-game AHL stint to punctuate the season.

Spectacular in his 15 games with Coachella Valley so far this year, he finally got the tap, in a divisional showdown against a team the Kraken were tied with in the wild card standings.

By night’s end, he was the hero.

“He was outstanding for us tonight right from the first period through,” said Seattle coach Dave Hakstol, whose club recalled Driedger on Dec. 9 after Philipp Grubauer was injured.

“A couple saves on the PK were difference-makers, and he had to make one more for us right before the end of the buzzer.

“Really happy for him. He’s worked hard to have that opportunity. He was a difference-maker for us tonight.”

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For the Flames it looked eerily similar to last season, as they carried most of the play after Nazem Kadri’s power play goal midway through the first period tied the game 1-1.

They simply couldn’t get the go-ahead goal.

After Alex Wennberg short-sided Jacob Markstrom six minutes into the third, the Flames simply couldn’t find a way to beat Driedger.

“He did amazing,” said Wennberg.

“It’s been a while but you can just tell how good of a goalie he is.

“It takes a lot to actually come in. He played games down there but it’s a different game up here and just making those big saves. He’s winning the game for us.”

A .974 save percentage in his return speaks to that

“He had a good game — he made some big saves,” said Mikael Backlund, whose club failed on all three power-play chances over the final two periods.

“At times we tried to be a little too pretty and made it easy on him at times too, but he came up big a few times.

“It’s tough — we talked about it in the morning, about how big a game it was and how close it is in the wild card race, and how we want to climb up and be in a wild card spot.”

Four teams now stand between Calgary and the final wild-card berth, and the Oilers are just two back of the Flames with four games in hand.

“Yeah it sucks for sure — even at this point of the year,” said coach Ryan Huska of the divisional loss.

“We’re not in a position where we want to be in, and all these games matter

“Disappointing — I felt we deserved better.”

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