High-scoring Gaudreau powering Calgary Flames into playoffs

Johnny Gaudreau’s career-high 37th goal was a thing of a beauty, a circular skate around the offensive zone, capped by a perfectly placed shot into the side of the net.

It was a superstar move that night in Chicago, a winger brimming with confidence in himself and his teammates. Gaudreau could always play, from growing up in New Jersey to breaking into the NHL, but he has reached a different level this year with the Calgary Flames.

“He just plays the whole game. For sure, a more consistent player,” coach Darryl Sutter said, “and, in his own way, a more demanding player also of how his linemates are playing, which is a big something that I’ve really noticed with him.”

Playing alongside Elias Lindholm and Matthew Tkachuk on one of the league’s most dangerous lines, Gaudreau has a career-best 74 assists and 113 points, topping the Flames in each category. He has five goals and seven assists during a six-game point streak heading into Thursday night’s matchup with Minnesota.

The 28-year-old Gaudreau also tops the NHL with a plus-63 rating and a gaudy 88 even-strength points for the Pacific Division champions. The plus-minus statistic is the league’s best since Wayne Gretzky was plus 69 for the 1986-87 season, according to Sportradar, and it’s the most even-strength points in a single season since Jaromir Jagr had 95 in 1995-96.

Now Gaudreau is hoping to carry his success into a deep postseason run for a Calgary franchise that hasn’t advanced in the playoffs since it lost in the second round in 2015.

“He’s been great. He plays the right way,” fellow Calgary forward Dillon Dube said. “He’s playing (a) 200-foot game right now. He’s probably one of our hardest backcheckers right now. He’s flying all over the ice.”

A standout at Boston College, Gaudreau won the Hobey Baker Award in 2014 as the NCAA’s top men’s hockey player. He then signed with Calgary and made his NHL debut with the Flames.

Listed at 5-foot-9 and 165 pounds, Gaudreau had 24 goals and 40 assists in his first full season with Calgary, earning the first of his six All-Star selections and finishing third in voting for the Calder Trophy, awarded to the NHL’s top rookie.

While Gaudreau has put up big numbers before — he had 36 goals and 63 assists during the 2018-19 season — his game appears to be better than ever at the end of his ninth year in the NHL. Nice timing, too, with Gaudreau eligible for unrestricted free agency in July.

“We want him back here. We’re going to move heaven and earth and do everything we possibly can to get Johnny back here,” Flames general manager Brad Treliving said during an April 17 appearance on Hockey Night in Canada.

Gaudreau credits a couple different factors for his performance, beginning with his chemistry with Lindholm and Tkachuk on Calgary’s top line. Lindholm and Tkachuk, who can become a restricted free agent after the season, are tied for the team lead with 41 goals apiece.

“We like playing together,” Gaudreau said. “We feel really comfortable together on the ice. It’s been a lot of fun this year playing with those two.”

Gaudreau also has meshed well with the demanding Sutter, who took over after Geoff Ward was fired in March 2021. The 63-year-old Sutter also coached the Flames from 2002-06, winning 107 games and making two playoff appearances in three seasons. He served as the team’s general manager from 2003-10.

Calgary went 15-15 after Sutter took over last season, falling short of the playoffs after losing in the first round in each of the previous two years. But Treliving stayed with Sutter, and Gaudreau has flourished with the well-traveled coach in charge.

“Playing for Darryl, we have a little bit different of a system,” Gaudreau said. “He expects a lot more in the (defensive) zone. Be smart in the D zone. … I think that part of my game has gotten a little bit better.”

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Jay Cohen can be reached at https://twitter.com/jcohenap

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