The Calgary FlamesIced one of the top hockey lines this season.
Funny story: They were just a backup plan.
There would be no preseason injuries if it wasn't for the many. Johnny Gaudreau, Elias LindholmAnd Matthew TkachukThe Flames wouldn't have chosen this line as their first. The whole complexion of Calgary's offense, heck, the entire season, could have been different.
The Flames would not have had the opportunity to miss such a great season. Calgary was one of the NHL's top teams and won the Pacific Division only the second-time since 2005-06. The Flames now face Dallas in the first round of playoffs. Dallas is currently tied at 1 going into Saturday's Game 3.
Calgary's success didn't depend on its first unit. Some things are meant to be. At the end of last year, the Lindholm lines had only briefly met; it was evident even then just how talented they were. Darryl Sutter was left with fewer options than he had, so he regrouped the line and they took the NHL by storm.
Lindholm stated that “we knew pretty much immediately it was a good line,” ESPN reported recently. “Those few games last season felt quite good. We had a lot of chemistry when we started this year and it has been a great ride ever since. It's a lot of fun playing with two top-level skill players. Although I don't have their same skills, I try to contribute with other things and give them as much puck as I can. They will make their magic.
This is the core of what makes these three special: their ability to complement, elevate, and celebrate one another's unique talent, as long as it fits within the group dynamic. Steve Jobs once said that the best teammates are like stones. It's no wonder Calgary's three big stars are so shining.
Lindholm is their conductor, an experienced leader who can lead with authority and demonstrate exemplary two way play. Tkachuk is unrelenting in puck pursuits and finishing prowess to rival any other drummer. Gaudreau, a true virtuoso and quick on his feet, is adept at creating and capitalizing scoring opportunities.
It works. Because despite all their differences these linemates see each other's game as the same. Tkachuk describes this as true chemistry.
He stated, “Definitely. Like 1,000% it is.” “We think the game very similar and that's why playing with them is so much fun. We want the puck all the time. We keep close to one another to have those little give and goes. Every time the puck is handed over, the other guys feel confident that the next player will take up the play. Once we have the puck, we immediately start thinking about offensive plays. We support each other and it seems like teams have a difficult time with us.”
Calgary bets on this trend to continue.
The numbers are inside
How does the Flames top unit compare against the competition? Let's just assume they dominated.
First in NHL in 5-on-5 goals, first among 5-on-5 expected goals, and first in 5-on-5 scoring opportunities.
They scored 69 more 5-on-5 goals than any other line combination. They also had 284 5-on-5 scoring chances.
Dallas's 207 regular line had the highest 5-on-5 chance of creating 5 on 5 opportunities Joe Pavelski, Roope HintzAnd Jason Robertson).
This is an example of the Flames' top-line as a whole. Then, there were the individual accomplishments.
Only 17 NHL players reached the 40-goal mark in this season's NHL. Three of them were Lindholm Tkachuk, Gaudreau and Tkachuk. There were 82 games with career-high totals across the board.
Gaudreau scored 40 goals and 115 point.
Lindholm scored 42 goals and 82 point.
Tkachuk, who was a rookie, never had more than 77 goals in a season. He surpassed his previous bests with 42 goals and then 104 points.
Tkachuk's season has been this kind. He can't even explain the how and why. He is certain that his linemates were a factor.
“Truly, I think [the puck is]He laughed. “I feel like I am at least thinking the exact same way and preparing each game the same way. Then, when it feels so easy, it's much easier. But I don’t feel I prepared differently. I feel like I am playing the same way as before. But this time, I'm trying to maximize the opportunities we have.
It's a nice perk to have positive stats. These are not what drives Tkachuk and his teammates. Tkachuk has always been proud of his physical game, and that pride has not diminished even as he has become a more offensive threat. Tkachuk, despite Calgary's stellar season not drawing the same attention that New York's, doesn't seem to mind.
Tkachuk stated that “we could care less if we're underrated” “Johnny and Lindy are, in my opinion, still very underrated players in the league. We are a difficult team to play against. We're very physical, and for our line, that means we need to be the ones leading the way. We know Johnny won't go out and crush guys, and neither will Lindy nor I, but we can play well as long as our team plays hard and leads the way with the puck. If you're here to play against us you're guaranteed a full 60 minutes worth of hard work.
Straight from Sutter's (ahem, Tkachuks) lips to all the other playoff players' ears.
How did they get here?
The journey of each Flames topliner was as unique as their skill sets.
Gaudreau was the first but not most well-known piece to be dropped. Gaudreau was drafted 104th by Calgary in 2011. He then played three outstanding seasons at Boston College. Gaudreau was awarded the Hobey Baker Award for the NCAA's best hockey player. He signed an entry-level contract with the Flames on the same day. He made his NHL debut in Calgary's final match of the 2013-14 season. Gaudreau has not looked back since.
Tkachuk was the Flames' sixth overall pick in 2016, and he came in as Tkachuk. Tkachuk was a heavy draftee with the expectation of one day being a true NHL star. He signed with Calgary immediately to get started. To begin the 2016-17 season, he joined the Flames' roster and has been steadily closer to achieving his lofty initial projections.
Lindholm finally made it to Calgary on the second day of another draft. Lindholm was the fifth overall selection of Carolina in 2013. He spent four seasons with Hurricanes before being traded for Calgary on draft day 2018. Noah HanifinWith Dougie Hamilton, Micheal FerlandProspect Adam FoxComing back to Carolina. Lindholm quickly established a place in the Flames' top six. He has been an under-the radar contributor and made a long-awaited breakthrough this season.
At first, Lindholm used Gaudreau as his frequent linemate. Tkachuk was then stapled to his side. Gaudreau was the first person to play together at 5-on-5 before Tkachuk. It was sensible to spread this amount of talent across the Flames' lineup. However, it was obvious that they were most effective when they were aligned.
Lindholm explained, “When you're on ice, it just seems to click; it just clicks.” “I think we are all pretty laid back, and when we get on the rink it's all about winning and having fun. You don't think about too much when you have a great year. It's like you're playing, making decisions every day. It's fun to be with these two and watch the success they have.
This time, the game has been much more enjoyable. Calgary finished fifth in the NHL's 2020-21 pandemic-shortened campaign. They missed the playoffs completely.
It was difficult to swallow. This is history the Flames' Big Three do not want to repeat. They didn't take this opportunity lightly. Knowing that more experience and time would only strengthen their group, they took it seriously.
Gaudreau stated, “I like to play with a single line and try to keep that consistent as possible so you create chemistry together.” You learn from each other when you get to know them on the ice. You learn more about each other player as you play and you try to make your line succeed. This is how you become a better line.
It is true that good relationships are built on trust and familiarity. However, there is another well-known cliche in hockey circles. It applies to every skilled player's game and must be embraced if he wants to have a successful career season.
And Toronto Maple Leafs defenseman Mark GiordanoIt was a mile away.
“Really difficult to face”
Giordano was the Flames' leader for 14 seasons. He was the team captain. He was awarded the Norris Trophy. He was also selected by the Seattle KrakenHe watched Gaudreau and Tkachuk arrive in Calgary to find the best version of themselves in last summer's expansion draft.
It appears that they have found it, partially due to one important change.
“They are learning defense much better than they were in their first years.” Giordano spoke candidly about how the trio has evolved. “The biggest difference I see between any year before this one is that they are really, really good in the end. It's translating to even more offense.”
Giordano is no longer with Calgary but he still speaks proudly of the team's emerging stars. Giordano's departure saw the Flames hand the torch to Gaudreau Tkachuk, Lindholm, and Tkachuk, so they could be the Flames heart and soul in a season such as this.
Giordano, instead of contributing to that success has played against it. He's seen a fully developed top line across the ice.
Giordano stated, “They are really hard to face.” Johnny, it's really hard to face them. He is very good at anticipating and that is why you see him score so many breakaways. Chucky is not in your zone. He's in the wall, making small plays. Because he is able to get the puck out of their D zones so well, he's one reason I believe that line generates so much offense.
Lindholm is something a bit different. Lindholm arrived at Calgary more mature than Gaudreau or Tkachuk, whereas Tkachuk was practically an infant. Giordano is not surprised that Lindholm is finally receiving league-wide attention.
Giordano said that Lindholm was “unbelievable” right from the time he reached there. He's a 200-foot centerman. He's a great shooter and has no flash. He's always in a good place. He is very good defensively. They are very fortunate to have him. Johnny and Chucky got him pucks in the correct position. He's a scorer. He can shoot the puck, and he was very good right from the beginning.
This has been Gaudreau’s base in Calgary for years. But, as Hart Trophy discussions intensified this season the Flames' superstar felt like an afterthought.
Giordano can attest that it was a mistake.
“Look at Johnny's stats throughout his career. Giordano noted that he has been a great player throughout his career. He deserves a lot. People go to bed early in the east. It's tough. It's hard, but Johnny reminds me of a lot. Mitch [Marner] here. Both of them see the play with extraordinary clarity. They see it as if they are two or three steps ahead. That's what makes them so special.
A show is putting on
Tkachuk doesn't regret playing against Gaudreau in NHL. When asked about the worst thing about that experience, he laughs.
“Man, that man is so shifty. It would be awful,” Tkachuk explained. He's very good at anticipating so he can get away when the puck is being turned over. This is a difficult skill that keeps you alert and on your toes. Even if they don't have the puck, you worry about how to defend him. It's worse when he does.
Lindholm still cannot understand why Gaudreau does not get headlines as other NHL top-tier players. According to Lindholm, Gaudreau's absence is a sign that someone is not paying enough attention.
Lindholm commented, “Every night Johnny is pretty entertaining to watch.” He's been an amazing player for us all season. He seems to be the one that always gets us that extra boost, extra goal or something. Although he deserves more attention, we all know how great he really is and everyone in the locker room knows that. It's a pleasure to be part of his team and play with him. [up close]What he is doing.”
It's hard to imagine Gaudreau not playing for the Flames again. Gaudreau will have unrestricted, free agency this summer.
He's been asking about it for months. There has been one theory after another about where Gaudreau might land next. These conversations did not distract Gaudreau from his on-ice goals or take energy away from him. Why would they? Gaudreau said that whether he signed a long-term contract extension yet or not, he is in a great place.
It's been with Tkachuk, Lindholm at his side.
He stated, “I want Calgary victory.” “And I believe that right from the beginning we started playing well, and we've been a very good position through most of the year. It's made it much easier to just focus on our team and to try to win games together and make friends. If you're losing games but not in the playoffs, it can be a lot harder to think about what the future holds.
“We have a very good group in Calgary. All the guys get along and they're a lot of fun. It's the best hockey I have ever seen in Calgary, so it's quite special.”
It doesn't matter if this season ends with the Stanley Cup, this trio will be a key part of it.