It took a fractured finger for Johnny Gaudreau to realize that having fun is a huge component of his personal success on the ice. That same injury may have also helped to salvage the season for the Calgary Flames as the team pulled together to compile a 6-3-1 record over the ten games that he was out of action. Now with the injury behind them, Gaudreau and the rest of the Flames seem to be taking a simplified and fun approach to the game which is really making a difference for them in the win column.
“I missed those ten games and as soon as I got back, I was so excited to just get things going again,” Gaudreau said to the Calgary Herald. “I wanted to re-start — not re-start the season but, you know, start where I left off last season. I think I’ve been playing with a lot more excitement and a lot more fun these last few games. The first game back, I was so excited it felt like it was my first NHL game again. We had a huge win against Anaheim and just kept rolling from there.”
A Total Team Improvement
The Flames looked lost, frustrated and confused after the first 25 games of the season. Up to that point, only the Winnipeg Jets had played as much hockey in the whole NHL and the fatigue on the team was very visible, especially after playing six games in a 10-day span with four matches played on back-to-back nights. Yet, as tired as they were the Flames still picked up seven of a possible 12 points on the road trip.
Even more inspiring for the team was the fact that they did it without the services of Gaudreau who reluctantly went home to New Jersey to rehab his injury. Going home wasn’t Gaudreau’s first choice as it meant missing out on a return to the Boston area where he played his college hockey with the Boston College Eagles. However, it did give the youngster a chance to clear his mind and focus on the mental part of his game after a poor start to the season.
After the road trip, the Flames found themselves without Gaudreau but still sitting within one point of a wild-card playoff spot. Still, they were a team that only had three wins at home before Nov. 30th and for a lot of fans it was hard to find optimism. That’s when Chad Johnson’s incredible play really took centre stage at home as he helped the team to a 3-0 shutout over the Toronto Maple Leafs. After that game against a talented and young squad from Toronto, the Flames began to look like a team ready to shine.
Whether it was by scoring by committee without their star player, improving their team discipline, converting on special teams or just by playing better defensively, the Flames began playing with confidence for the first time this season. Now, as they await Wednesday’s game against the Tampa Bay Lightning, they are riding a six-game win streak and battling for top spot in the Pacific Division.
“We have moved the bar for ourselves in the last month,” said Gulutzan to CalgaryFlames.com. “Everybody knows about our start, we dug ourselves a hole and we are starting to get ourselves out of it. We’ve got a lot of work to do but we have a great group.”
Digging Out of the Hole
The Flames were already turning the tide on their season when Gaudreau announced he would return to the line-up weeks ahead of schedule thanks to the reinforced gloves he now uses to protect his fingers. Analysts mused over whether the new mitts would impact his game as they took on the Anaheim Ducks on Dec. 4th but the biggest change fans noticed about Gaudreau was the smile that had returned to his face.
It didn’t take long to see the results. Gaudreau scored on his first shot during his first shift and then seven more Flames players added in their own markers to help the Flames cruise to a 8-3 victory over an Anaheim team that is generally used to winning when they play Calgary.
However, even with that relatively easy victory, the Flames know their success of late has the most to do with goaltender, Chad Johnson who has an 11-2-0 record with a 1.61 goals-against average and.946 save percentage over his last 13 starts.
After all, it was Johnson who almost on his own kept the Flames from dropping out of playoff contention when Gaudreau got hurt. But, now his return has only added more fuel to the fire as players like Dougie Hamilton, Mikael Backlund, Matthew Tkachuk and Sean Monahan have improved their own games of late – helping the Flames become the team everyone expected them to be earlier this year.
“I think when you go on a little bit of a run, like we did without (Gaudreau), and then you add him in, especially such a good team guy and a good team player and obviously an elite player at this level … ” said Flames head coach Glen Gulutzan to the Calgary Herald after Saturday’s 6-2 win over the Winnipeg Jets.
“When you add him into the mix and he comes in and just wants to be part of the group and help out, it really gives your team a boost. And that’s what he’s done. He’s created those three or four other chances every night, and it’s kind of surged our team.”
Ironically with the Flames playing so well right now it’s a bit unfortunate that they’ve had nearly four full days off before their next game. Their schedule over the rest of December is also a bit lighter with two fewer games than they had in November. To keep their winning streak alive, the Flames will need to keep the mood light and their skills sharp to continue climbing the Pacific Division standings before the end of 2016.
If they can do it they might just fight their way into a playoff spot after all.
Jon is a Calgary resident and life-long Flames fan who is a new contributor on TheHockeyWriters.com. You can follow Jon on Twitter @sportfanyyc where you’ll probably learn a bit more about sledge hockey as well.