Like most nights Connor McDavid plays, the evening opened with the spotlight on him.
With 15 points in his previous five games, No. 97 represented the latest in a series of obstacles between the Calgary Flames and a playoff spot.
However, by night’s end it was the man chiefly responsible for trying to stop McDavid’s string of four-straight three-point efforts who stole centre stage.
Not only did Elias Lindholm play a big part in keeping McDavid off the scoreboard Thursday, but the Flames top centreman also had two goals in a crucial 3-1 win over Edmonton that moved Calgary within four points of fourth-place Montreal.
A big part of the penalty killing unit that shut the door on all three Oilers power plays, Lindholm was also 64 per cent in the faceoff circle on a night when he was also on the wrong side of a highlight reel save by Mike Smith that will live on for years.
Clinging to a 2-1 lead in the final minute of the second period, Lindholm and Mikael Backlund had a shorthanded two-on-one that saw Backlund throw perfect sauce over Tyson Barrie’s stick, giving Lindholm a brief glimpse at an open cage before the former Flames netminder slid across to snare the puck with his outstretched glove.
“I just tried to get it up and I saw an open net but he made a nice save — it is what it is,” smiled Lindholm, who would otherwise have completed his hat trick with 13 seconds left in the frame.
“It was probably my best chance in a long time. It’s funny how it works. Two greasy ones in the beginning and then get a really good chance and it doesn’t go in.”
The Flames’ leading scorer was being modest as he’s now scored in a remarkable seven of his last nine games, reminding people once again he’s Calgary’s most complete player.
“He was awesome,” said Matthew Tkachuk, who set up Lindholm’s game-opening one-timer with a pass from behind the net.
“Snapping back draws. Not many people realize that second goal of his started with a (faceoff) win in the offensive zone and him getting a piece of (a Rasmus Andersson point blast) going to the net where goals are scored. Great penalty kills from him and the rest of the penalty-kill guys. He’s got a very tough job going up as a centreman against McDavid basically all night and he did a great job against him.”
Like every other team in the division, the Flames have struggled for the most part limiting McDavid, who has long flourished with the extra man.
“I think in the beginning (off the season series) we took a lot of penalties and obviously their power play is very good and our penalty kill has been not as good,” said Lindholm, whose club can even the 10-game series with a win Saturday.
“Overall, staying out of the box is key.”
The Flames successfully killed off the final minute of a penalty to open the third period and had to do it once again with eight minutes left after Tkachuk took a boarding penalty eight seconds after Dillon Dube made it 3-1. Lindholm played a big part in both kills, as did Jacob Markstrom who was spectacular in a 30-save effort.
“Good all-around game for Lindy,” said coach Darryl Sutter, who reunited Lindholm, Tkachuk and Gaudreau after mixing the lines one game earlier.
“Obviously he’s a really good two-way centre for us. It’s nice to see him get rewarded too.”
More importantly, the team left with the only thing that matters to keep their flickering playoff hopes alive.
“If we play like we did tonight, we’re going to win on most nights,” said Tkachuk.
“But they’re a team that played back-to-back and a little bit of travel in there. They’re going to be much better Saturday night – we know that, especially their top guys. We’re going to be more than ready for that.”
You can bet many of the Flames will be watching Montreal host Winnipeg on Friday, and will keep an eye on the early Habs/Sens game Saturday before the Flames play in Edmonton for Saturday’s late game.
“We’re not in a position we want to be in right now — we still aren’t, even after this win tonight,” said Tkachuk, whose club has won six of nine.
“We’re unfortunately doing a little bit of scoreboard watching as well. Hopefully it’s a two-team race with us and Montreal. I guess all we can do is keep winning and hope they lose some to make this very interesting down the stretch.”