Tight defensive play of top scoring line key to Flames’ success

Flames forward Matthew Tkachuk discusses what he's loving most about their hot start, says winning cures everything, we just enjoy showing up to the rink everyday, and not having to scoreboard watch already this early is nice too.

Of all the gaudy stats Johnny Gaudreau has posted over the course of his NHL career, perhaps none are more shocking and impressive than this one.

Ditto for Matthew Tkachuk.

In the midst of Tuesday’s win over the Blackhawks, a rare Tkachuk turnover in his own end wound up in the back of Calgary’s net.

The goal ended a string no other NHLer could boast, as it was the first time this season Tkachuk was on the ice for a 5-on-5 goal against.

Ditto for his linemate, Gaudreau.

They were the last two players in the NHL with over 100 minutes of ice time at 5-on-5 to not allow a goal.

Of forwards with over 250 minutes at 5-on-5, only one player comes close to such defensive perfection – linemate Elias Lindholm, who has been on the ice for only two 5-on-5 goals in a quarter of a season.

Next on that list is Filip Zadina of the Red Wings with six, while Pierre Luc-Dubois and Kyle Connor of the Jets are at nine.

“They’ve done a good job in our defensive zone,” said Gaudreau of his linemates, who’ve provided a steadying influence while he’s taken massive strides in his approach to playing in his own zone.

“Obviously, Lindy is pretty good back there. He’s good down low and getting pucks out, and getting them to us wingers on the wall. I think we’re just playing well. A lot of fun right now.”

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Keep in mind, they aren’t a checking line.

They are a scoring line, which also happens to be something they’ve been proficient at this year too, slinging the puck around on many nights with the creativity of hockey’s version of the Globetrotters.

No line in the NHL has played more minutes as a trio than Calgary’s top unit, playing five minutes more than Alex Ovechkin, Evgeny Kuznetsov and Tom Wilson.

Only a few lines have scored more than the Flames trio, which has seen Gaudreau and Tkachuk score nine times, followed by Lindholm at eight. The trio have combined for an NHL-high 23 goals (Tkachuk 9, Gaudreau 8, Lindholm 6) as a line, which counts only the goals they have scored when all three are on the ice together. The Flames as a team have scored 14 goals when all three are on the ice at 5-on-5, and allowed one (the +13 differential is an NHL-best).

But none have been stingier defensively.

To that point, Lindholm leads the league at plus-19.

The next closest forward in the loop is Johnny Gaudreau at plus-15.

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Tkachuk is at plus-12.

Dominance.

Few league observers would have believed in training camp that Calgary would have one of the league’s best lines.

But even coach Darryl Sutter, who continues to remind media-types his team is bereft of elite scoring, admitted recently it’s one of the league’s top trios.

Sutter says their proficiency has helped set up the team’s secondary scorers, like Andrew Mangiapane, who is amongst league leaders with 15 goals.

“Who draws the most attention? Matthew and Lindy and Johnny,” said Sutter, answering his own question.

“So you’re expecting those guys behind them to beat who they are playing against, either in the checking department, the puck battle department, the possession department or the scoring department.”

They certainly have, leading the team to a 12-3-5 record that has Calgary sitting atop the Western Conference.

The Flames lead the league with a plus-30 goal differential, thanks to a relentless forecheck that has the team tilting possession stats, creating plenty of scoring chances and keeping the puck out of their own end.

Having the league’s best goaltending tandem helps too, as the Flames are the only team in the league averaging under two goals against per game.

Gaudreau is back to being the energized, engaged playmaking wizard he was three years earlier when he finished with 99 points and fourth in Hart Trophy voting.

His 23 points have him sitting sixth in the NHL, alongside linemates who are both in the top 25.

“They’re two really smart, skilled players,” said Gaudreau.

“I’ve said it before, you like playing with players and trying to create chemistry. With two players like that, they see the ice so well, and they make plays in the offensive zone.

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“At times at the blue line the play might not be there and the play is to dump it in.

“But they can make a skilled play to make it turn into a 2-on-1 or an odd-man rush.”

Lindholm and Tkachuk have long been 200-foot players with offensive upside, while Gaudreau continues to add defensive responsibility to his repertoire.

His backchecking even included a big hit on Erik Haula Sunday in Boston.

“I was just happy I knocked him down,” said the diminutive Gaudreau, who smiled when asked if it was a “back to the gym” moment (in honour of a blast by Mark Giordano last year he punctuated by yelling at the victim, “back to the gym.”)

“No, I don’t deserve to say that. I belong in the gym, at all times.”

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