Way back when, before he started to climb the coaching ranks, the Calgary Flames’ interim skipper was teaching science to middle-school students.
This week, fans have been wondering if Geoff Ward is some sort of mad scientist.
It’s far too soon to guess if this crazy chemistry experiment will work, but Ward’s new-look lineup — his unusual forward combinations have been the talk of the town — did the trick in Thursday’s 4-3 victory over the Buffalo Sabres at the Saddledome.
“Sometimes, new energy does things. We’re hoping it does something for everybody, not just Johnny (Gaudreau),” Ward explained after Thursday’s morning skate. “If it can spark our team to play harder and play with more energy, it’s probably been a good move for us.
“We’re not looking at one or two guys in our lineup. We’ve gotta find ways to score more goals throughout our lineup. We’ve gotta find more ways to be harder away from the puck. So we have lots of things we have to work on as a group.”
This remains a work in progress, but the Flames have now won three straight and collected points in five consecutive contests (4-1-0).
Even with the momentum building, Calgary’s interim head coach — elevated last week after the resignation of Bill Peters — didn’t hesitate to tinker with his forward trios.
Thursday’s victory had as much to do with special-teams success as five-on-five formations, but a lot of fans likely left the rink thinking, ‘Jeez, this just might work.’
Because on this night, Gaudreau finally looked like his old self, something that wasn’t often the case during a four-week goal-scoring dry spell.
Because Milan Lucic finally scored his first in the Flaming C. In fact, it turned out to be the game-winner.
Because there were plenty of positives for the Flames, although the Sabres did cause some nail-biting with a pair of pottings in the final three minutes.
“Whatever Wardo thinks is going to help this team win games, you have to be on board for that,” Gaudreau said after a first-star showing.
Ward showed up for Tuesday’s practice with some wacky ideas, then figured he would stick with them for this matchup with the Sabres.
He had the Flames’ usual first and second centres skating side-by-side on the same unit, with Sean Monahan manning the middle and Mikael Backlund shifted to left wing. That pair connected on a sweet give-and-go in the second, with Monahan burying a one-timer.
Ward started his struggling superstar, Gaudreau, alongside bottom-six sorts Derek Ryan and Lucic. That crew wasn’t on the ice together for any lamp-lightings, but No. 13 had his best outing in recent weeks and snapped out of his 10-game goal-scoring dry spell with a power-play marker before being bumped up mid-game to join Monahan and Backlund.
It’s no secret that Gaudreau likes to aim between the netminder’s ear and the inside post, but with Buffalo’s Linus Ullmark cheating that direction on a first-period man advantage, he instead sizzled a shot under the cross-bar on the glove-side.
“I thought he really stepped up,” Monahan said of Gaudreau. “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.”
Lucic got in on the fun, too, finishing off Ryan’s feed for his first strike in the Flaming C and for what eventually stood as the game-winner.
With the crowd cranking up the volume, the big brute was grinning ear-to-ear. Post-game, he was presented with the Calgary Police Service cowboy hat.
“My teammates all along have been sticking with me and building me up,” Lucic said. “It took longer than I had hoped and probably a lot of people had hoped, but good on everyone for all the support and I’m more than excited that I was able to do it in front of the home fans. I think they’ve stuck with me throughout the whole season so far and never gave up on me.
“And it’s nice to get a big goal. When you make it 4-1, you don’t always think it’s going to be the winner. But anytime you score a goal, it’s always a big goal and hopefully now that you relive that feeling, it’s time to hold onto it and get it going.”
Tobias Rieder also scored for the Flames. (More on that in a moment.)
Sam Reinhart, Jake McCabe and Jack Eichel were the marksmen for the Sabres, while David Rittich finished with 26 saves in Calgary’s crease. The Flames were short-handed eight times but allowed just one power-play strike.
ROAR OF APPROVAL
Ryan was thrilled to see his linemate, Lucic, finally find the back of the net.
He was even more excited about what he heard.
“It got pretty loud out there, too. I liked that,” said Ryan, who deserves credit for a dandy assist. “It felt really good just to see the smile on his face and the sigh of relief.”
The 31-year-old Lucic had yet to tickle twine in 27 previous outings with the Flames.
And it’s no secret that the guy he was traded for, James Neal, has been doing a ton of offensive damage on behalf of the arch-rival Edmonton Oilers.
Teammates, you could tell, were pumped to see Lucic end his drought. Fans, too.
“The crowd has been dying for it, it seems like, for a couple weeks now,” Ward said. “It was so awesome to see — the crowd exploded, and the smile on his face … He’s a guy who comes to work every day. He’s a really good pro. He’s team-first all the time. So to see him finally break through, it was awesome.”
CAR TO GO
Rieder had reason to celebrate. The 26-year-old speedster was marking a milestone against the Sabres, skating in his 400th NHL game.
He made it a special night for a lucky fan named Cindy, too.
Rieder scored on a short-handed breakaway in the second, converting on a slick deke to his backhand. Thanks to that timely tally, Cindy scored the keys to a Chevy Malibu as part of the in-house Minute to Win It promotion.
“After the goal, when I went on the bench, Mony told me, ‘You just won a lady a car,’ ” Rieder said. “And then I saw it on the jumbo-tron and she seemed really excited. I just met her and I’m really happy for those people.”
This is a significant signing for the Flames … and not of the free-agent variety.
On Thursday morning, representatives of Calgary Sports and Entertainment Corporation, the City of Calgary, Calgary Municipal Land Corporation (CMLC) and the Calgary Stampede finalized the official paperwork on the downtown arena project.
Construction on the new building will begin in 2021.
“We now turn our attention to the execution of the project and look forward to working closely with the city, CMLC, and the Stampede as we begin to set out plans for the design and construction of the event centre,” said Flames president John Bean in a statement.
ICE CHIPS : Thursday marked Canadian Armed Forces Appreciation Night at the Saddledome, with Cpl. Patrick Kean — assisted by three other Edmonton-based soldiers — rappelling from the rafters to deliver the puck for the ceremonial face-off … Flames defenceman Travis Hamonic returned to action after missing a half-dozen games due to a lower-body injury … Colin Cooper, who stopped pucks for the Calgary Canucks and Mount Royal Cougars, filled in for Rittich at the Flames’ optional morning skate.
Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2019