Pacific time zone hockey tends to get ignored in the same fashion as west coast baseball. It’s hard to win an MVP or another award when your games are on at 9 and 10pm, as you’re cutting into hockey writers’ drinking time. You have to put on a world-class and ear-shattering whining campaign to get someone to notice. Citing the Kings fans’ campaign of bed-wetting to get Drew Doughty a Norris Trophy in 2016 as evidence. And the main stories coming out of the Pacific have been the collapse of the Knights or the continued soap opera for the ennui-ridden Edmonton Oilers.
More eyes should be pointed farther south in Alberta, where the Calgary Flames have run away with the division, and have perhaps the most fun line in hockey right now. They also have Johnny Gaudreau, who might be the most entertaining player in the league at the moment.
Gaudreau tore the Kings apart on Monday night, with two goals and an assist. Kings goalie Cal Petersen will be having flashbacks and putting holes in the drywall for a while, as Gaudreau made him look King Doofus a couple times, as you can see here and here.
In between those, Gaudreau showed off his patience and vision, finding Elias Lindholm in the slot when he mesmerized four Kings defenders and caused them to go into vapor lock.
Gaudreau backed it up last night in Anaheim with two more assists in yet another Flames win over the Ducks. It continues the nuclear heater Gaudreau has been on since March 1st. In 19 games Gaudreau has piled up 32 points (14G 18A). The streak has rocketed Johnny Hockey up to 4th in the league in scoring with 97 points.
Gaudreau has certainly benefited from the uptick in scoring in the NHL as the season has gone on, but he is perfectly slotted on the Flames’ top line that is the idealization of what a line should be. The combination of a playmaker, finisher, and puck-winner is the dream that every coach chases for their lines. Joel Quenneville was the big proponent of this in his time in Chicago, and current Flames coach Darryl Sutter wasn’t too different when he was winning Cups in L.A. He inherited this line when he took over behind the bench, but hasn’t tinkered at all and has reaped the rewards.
Gaudreau is the one making things happen, after Matthew Tkachuk does the hard work and loosens the puck from defenders and the boards. Lindholm finds the open space to be the receiver for Gaudreau’s genius, to the tune of 36 goals. All three have 33 goals or more, and the beauty of the line is that these three can all moonlight in the other roles they don’t usually fill of the playmaker, finisher, puck-winner roles. Tkachuk is a lethal scorer himself. Lindholm can get the puck back when you need it. Gaudreau scores a lot too.
The Flames are looking pretty tasty right now, and it’s hard to see anyone in the Pacific stopping them. They’ll be hoping the Knights miss the playoffs and then suddenly become healthy miraculously, but if it’s the Stars or Preds waiting in the first round, neither has a checking line that would have any hope of slowing the Flames’ top unit down. Even if they found a way, the acquisition of Tyler Toffoli to join Andrew Mangiapane on the second line (Mangiapane has 30 goals himself and might be the most annoying person in the world) is meant to buttress that.
Do the Flames have enough to derail the Avs, should it come to that? They have an advantage in net, but the Avs have their own doomsday device of a top line in Nathan MacKinnon, Mikko Ratanen, and Gabe SapsuckerFrog (Landeskog). The Flames also don’t have anything resembling a Makar or Toews on the blue line. But it will certainly be a party worth watching when it comes.
The drama overhanging Gaudreau is that he’s a free agent after the season. Tkachuk is a restricted free agent, and paying both of them eight figures they’re going to require is going to make the Flames’ cap situation all sorts of mucky. If they could lose cartoon monolith Milan Lucic and his $5 million salary into some roadside touring carnival ride, that would help. The easy story to reach for has always been Gaudreau returning home to play for the Flyers, but the Flyers are so far from being even relevant that that doesn’t feel automatic or even likely. It’s hard to see how that signing would benefit either Gaudreau or the Flyers.
The Flames will put that discussion off for another day. They have a real Cup contender for the first time since Jarome Iginla was putting the whole team on his back and dragging them through playoff rounds. Gaudreau has been a joy to watch on a nightly basis. He offers something different than the other top scorers, finding angles and spaces instead of just overpowering them with speed like McDavid or Matthews. He’s a soccer No. 10 on ice, more a weaver through traffic than streaking around it or through it. Things slow down when Gaudreau has the puck, freezing everyone in place out of fear of what Johnny might do. Johnny Hockey sees the angles and openings no one else can. He’s doing it at the moment better than anyone has. He could keep it up straight through June.