Sean Monahan and Johnny Gaudreau are now in their sixth full season together with the Calgary Flames. Over their first five seasons, they established themselves as a top-tier offensive duo, leading the team to three playoff berths. But could this finally be the season that the Flames advance past the second round and make a run at the Stanley Cup? To arrive at that point, the team no doubt must depend on a strong showing from Monahan and Gaudreau.
But the first-line regulars have been at the centre of the team’s recent playoff struggles. With the Flames once again pushing for a playoff spot in 2019-20, can we expect better from their star players?
Flames Fall in Five to Avalanche in 2019
Last season’s first-round playoff loss to the Colorado Avalanche especially stung. The Flames had enjoyed a dominant regular season, pacing the Western Conference with a 50-25-7 record and 107 points.
But they were no match for the Avalanche’s power and speed game. The Avalanche were unrelenting as they bulldozed their way to a decisive 4-1 series win.
Goaltender Mike Smith was dismissed as an afterthought in free agency, but he and Sam Bennett—who put up five points in the series—were among the few who appeared ready to compete. The team’s first line was suppressed. In the series, Monahan posted one goal and one assist. Gaudreau managed a lone assist in the five games.
Playoff Setback Lingers for Monahan and Gaudreau
The first-round disappointment carried over into the pair’s offensive game in 2019-20. Both players are on pace to fall well short of their career-high point totals from last season. After 99 points, Gaudreau is on pace for a total in the mid-60s this season. Monahan is projected to fall from 82 points to a number in the mid-50s.
Despite these drop-offs, the Flames have remained in the playoff hunt throughout the season. As of Feb. 28, they sit in the first wild card spot, albeit in a very tight Western Conference playoff race.
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The stars are showing signs of improvement at the right time. Since the NHL All-Star break, they’ve reunited with their usual linemate, Elias Lindholm, whom the team had tested out as its second-line centre. Since the break, Gaudreau has put up 15 points in 15 games. Monahan has managed nine points over the same stretch. They also appear to be regaining confidence in their unit’s trademark puck movement in the offensive zone.
Can Monahan and Gaudreau Thrive in Playoff Hockey?
When the NHL calendar turns to playoff hockey, teams adopt a different style of play. It’s heavier, more desperate, and unforgiving. These qualities don’t complement either Monahan’s or Gaudreau’s game. The Flames were reminded of this the hard way in last year’s first-round playoff loss.
Monahan’s playing style has added some grit this season. He’s on pace to nearly double his usual hit total. Though, that’s not saying too much, considering he’s only registering about one hit per game. He did also initiate a surprise fight—the first of his career—against Ryan Nugent-Hopkins in the heated Battle of Alberta game of Jan. 29.
On the other hand, grit will never define Gaudreau’s play. And no one is asking it to. But he needs to find a way to make his game work within the heavier and faster style of the playoffs. When he’s off his game, Monahan’s effectiveness also diminishes. The Flames need contributions from their top scorers to have Stanley Cup aspirations.
Flames Better Off Not Relying on Gaudreau and Monahan?
The usual narrative for the Flames has changed since the NHL All-Star break. Over that time span, the team’s second line of Matthew Tkachuk, Mikael Backlund, and Andrew Mangiapane has emerged as a dominant trio on offense.
Part of the team’s problem last season was a lack of scoring depth. The Flames were an extreme one-line team. Monahan, Gaudreau, and Lindholm carried the offense throughout the season, with winger Tkachuk and defenseman Mark Giordano benefiting from power play time with the trio. When Colorado shut down the top line in the playoffs, the Flames had little response.
Fortunately for the team, its other core pieces are creating depth this season. At the moment, the second line is outplaying the first. Tkachuk and Lindholm, both strong two-way forwards, have quietly taken over as the team’s best players.
This newfound depth has led to three or more goals for the Flames in 10 consecutive games. In five of those games, they’ve scored five or more goals. This offensive upsurge is attributable to the second line’s rise, as well as the first line’s moderate success in recent weeks.
Flames’ Forward Group Needs to Contend Now
This was the statement that general manager Brad Treliving made at the 2020 trade deadline. Many have clamoured for the team to add a top-six winger for years now. But after the emergence of the team’s second line, Treliving opted to improve his team’s defensive depth at the trade deadline.
In anticipation of a playoff push, the team traded for defensemen Erik Gustafsson and Derek Forbort. Forbort especially helps the team’s size, as does the offseason addition of winger Milan Lucic for the bottom six.
But the deadline moves spoke more directly to Monahan and Gaudreau. There are no reinforcements coming on offense. The Flames need them to step up today and in the playoffs. Their line with Lindholm is looking better in recent weeks, but it’s still a far cry from their dominant performance of last season.
No doubt, neither the team’s first nor second line can single-handedly carry the team on a long playoff run. So the answer isn’t that Monahan and Gaudreau need to revive the elite play of last year’s regular season. It would be great if they did, but even just managing a level of consistent play—which they’ve done of late—should be enough for the Flames to reach the playoffs.
It will be a telling next few weeks for the Flames. Giordano has made a pivotal return to the lineup after missing multiple weeks. The defensive corps is bolstered from the trade deadline acquisitions, and the second line is flourishing. If Monahan and Gaudreau can continue to play their game, the Flames could be a serious contender for the Stanley Cup.