It came 4 minutes into the third period of Thursday night’s matchup against the Buffalo Sabres. The moment many Flames fans have been waiting seemingly forever for; Milan Lucic officially has his first goal as a Calgary Flame. Not only that, but the goal also proved to be the game-winner after the Flames fell asleep with 5 minutes remaining.
On a night that started with bizarre line pairings, the Flames rewarded their new coach Geoff Ward with his third consecutive win. A perfect 3-0 start for the newly minted coach after a tumultuous few weeks for the Flames organization.
Despite opening up an early 1-0 lead, the Sabres had the game brought to them by a Flames team that finally looks like they have something to prove. Johnny Gaudreau opened the scoring after going goalless the last month––a 10 game stretch that left him with only four assists and a -11 plus/minus rating. His powerplay goal was a turning point not just for him, but a Flames team that relies on him to spark their offence.
“That was a big goal on the power-play to get us going and I think, all night, he was making things happen. And that’s Johnny”, remarked linemate Sean Monahan after the win.
Starting the game on different lines, Monahan and Gaudreau were reunited halfway through the first, pairing up as wingers on Mikael Backlund’s line. And it wasn’t just that line that saw success–it was a top to bottom effort from the Flames.
Notably, Derek Ryan was a force with whoever he played with, which was primarily Lucic and rookie Dillon Dube after the line changes settled. Ryan has had an up and down 2019 season thus far. He brings a strong presence as a third-line centre, but has faltered when previous coach Bill Peters asked more out of him. There are times when he looks out of sorts and a step behind.
Give credit to new coach Geoff Ward for sending a message to his players that mediocrity is no longer going to fly. It was about time the slumping Monahan saw demoted minutes and his play Thursday night reflected his attitude about the change. He was superb in his new position on the wing, which is not an easy move for a player who has played the centre position exclusively to this point in his career.
The problem moving forward will be how the Flames manage their void in the middle of the ice. If the Backlund/Monahan/Gaudreau line is going to stay intact, other players are going to need to step up in the centre position. Most notably, Mark Jankowski will need to prove himself as a reliable fourth-line centre in the NHL. To this point, he has been a disappointment for the Flames, who no doubt would like to see him impact games using his size and speed.
All said, this was another step in the right direction for the Flames, but most would agree that the Sabres are not the test to which they should hold themselves accountable. The Flames need to continue winning, but especially so against teams within their division and conference; the teams that they will be facing come playoff time.