Tuesday March 31st, 2015

Off The Draw

Maybe what Johnny Gaudreau, Sean Monahan and Jiri Hudler need is a cool nickname. Something to help the Flames trio establish their brand with the public.

Because right now they comprise the best line in hockey. And nobody seems to know it.

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While barroom conversation on the subject tends to center around the Alex OvechkinNicklas Backstrom unit in Washington, or the Tyler Seguin-Jamie Benn-Jason Spezza group in Dallas, or whatever trio Sidney Crosby happens to be a part of these days, Calgary’s unheralded line has quietly established itself as the one most capable of changing the course of a game. Since the beginning of March, the combination of Gaudreau, Monahan and Hudler has torched opposing goalies for 25 goals and 55 points. No other line comes close.

The three were at it again on Monday night against the Stars, combining for two goals and five points in a 5–3 road victory that drove a stake through the heart of Dallas’s playoff chances. More important, the win gave the Flames a three-point cushion over the defending Stanley Cup champion Kings.

Naturally it was Hudler who tied the game early in the second period, and then set up Gaudreau for the winner minutes later.

With those two points, Hudler reached the 70-point plateau and, unbelievably, moved into a tie for seventh in league scoring. It’s been a remarkable season for the 31-year-old winger. Before this year, his best-ever campaign was in 2008–09, when he scored 57 points for the Red Wings.

Amazingly, Hudler is the league’s leading scorer at five-on-five with 55 points, just ahead of Ryan Getzlaf, Tyler Johnson and Vladimir Tarasenko, all of whom have 53. And Hudler’s 23 points in March are the highest any player has scored during a calendar month this season.

It’s easy to see why things are going Hudler’s way. He’s getting more pucks to the net—he’s on target to reach a new career high of 162 shots—and his shooting percentage is hovering at a personal best of 19.9%. Part of that is luck—Stars coach Lindy Ruff accurately referred to Hudler’s goal on Monday night as “bizarre.” But a bigger part is the chemistry he has with his young linemates.

Monahan was living in a hotel early last season when Hudler moved the rookie into his own home. And he did it without the encouragement of the team.

“He's been unbelievable,” Calgary coach Bob Hartley said of Hudler recently. “A leader on and off the ice.”

Monahan has certainly benefited from Hudler’s experience. He’s been the season’s most impressive sophomore, playing a dominant big man’s game that defies his age. He’s the first member of the 2013 draft class to score 50 career goals, and his 92 total points since the start of last season rank second behind only the top pick in the ’13 draft, Nathan MacKinnon of the Avalanche.

“There are guys who just know how to score,” Flames forward Joe Colborne said of Monahan in the Calgary Herald. “ ‘Mony’ [doesn’t need] seven or eight shots a game, but if you get him the puck in the slot, he’s not going to miss. He’s shown that not only during this recent hot stretch, but the whole time he’s been playing in the NHL.

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“It’s his patience, how smart he is. He gets it and it’s off the stick so quick, but he still has that patience to see where the goalie is, and you never see him putting it in the crest [in the middle of a goalie’ jersey]. He finds those corners and puts it in a spot the goalie has to make a great save or it’s going in.”

Gaudreau, meanwhile, scored his 60th point of the season in the win over Dallas, becoming just the 11th rookie since 2005–06 to reach that mark. The NHL's Rookie of the Month for March and a surefire finalist for the Calder Trophy, he’s given hope to a generation of undersized players and established himself as one of the most exciting offensive craftsmen in the game.

Of course, after he notched the game winner on Monday night, Hartley only wanted to talk about a shot that Gaudreau blocked.

“That’s the culture of this hockey club,” Hartley said. “You don’t pick and choose your jobs. You have to get dirty. Johnny was right in that shooting lane and that was a huge block. If he doesn’t block it, that puck may be well in the net and you never know what can happen.”

It was a nice effort, a sign of Gaudreau’s commitment—a quality that's required when playing for Hartley. And it was one more reason that his line is the best in the game.

Hot links

• Former referee Paul Stewart points the finger of blame at the NHL and NHLPA for this huge failure.

• If hockey doesn’t work out for Tristan Harper, he might have a fallback career as a model. Or perhaps as a lumberjack.

• Eric Duhatschek makes the case for Calgary’s Bob Hartley as the best choice for coach of the year. My only quibble is that it shouldn’t take a playoff berth to seal the honor. Hartley has done a brilliant job regardless.

• Matt Larkin makes the case that this team will win the Stanley Cup.

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