CALGARY – In Saturday’s warmup all the talk around Calgary was about Bennett and Blasty, as in Sam and the retro uniforms.
After being dominated by the Edmonton Oilers in the first period, the talk turned to the Flames burying themselves early, as they have done so often this year.
By night’s end the focus was on Backlund and the bounce back, as in Mikael and the way he may have helped turn the Flames’ season on a dime.
Following an opening period in which the Oilers led 2-1 and outshot the Flames 17-3, it was Backlund’s newly-formed trio that spearheaded the team’s most emotional win of the season.
Not only did he work with Andrew Mangiapane and Milan Lucic to limit Connor McDavid (to two points) at one end of the ice, Backlund’s line combined for seven points to cap an 80s style shootout with a 6-4 win.
“I thought that line tonight was huge for us,” said coach Geoff Ward, who finally got some of the secondary scoring his team was supposed to be all about.
“Mikael is one of those players who plays such an important role for us. It’s funny the way the flows go in the game. You can look dead in the water and you’re not playing well and something weird happens and all of a sudden you run the other way. Hopefully it springboards us in that direction. Time will tell. We certainly have something to build on.”
Lucic’s goal early in the second calmed a team that certainly looked on the brink of losing its sixth game in eight outings.
Backlund’s strike two minutes later officially turned the tide in a game the Flames dominated from the second period on.
Despite Matthew Tkachuk’s efforts, there weren’t any fireworks outside of the flames emanating from the rafters as the team outscored the Oilers 3-1 after Jesse Puljujarvi tied it in the first minute of the third.
“We talked about having more swagger when we’re down,” said Backlund, who finished with a goal and two assists while also spending the final two minutes of the game on the ice.
“We don’t want to get down in games but we have lately. We’ve got to get that swagger back that we know we are going to come back and we know we are a good team and it doesn’t matter how games go. I thought that was a big thing for us coming out in the second with a lot more energy and a lot more confidence and swagger to our game. We were playing more in the O-zone and having more of the puck. I thought it was a big step for us for sure.”
Coming into the first of 10 provincial showdowns on a two-game losing skid, the Flames spoke endlessly about how a game with this much hype and emotion was bound to serve them well.
They were right.
Inserting Zac Rinaldo and Byron Froese into the lineup to add energy, Ward also saw fit to bring Bennett back into the fold after being a healthy scratch following his trade request. Playing alongside Johnny Gaudreau and Sean Monahan, he converted a brilliant backhand pass from behind the net from Gaudreau to slam home his first goal of the season with nine minutes remaining.
It was the insurance marker in a game very much in doubt until that point.
“It’s great for my personal confidence, but more importantly it’s a win for the team — it’s a solid effort from the whole team that excited me the most,” said Bennett, whose status was kept a secret until warmup.
“We felt like he would give us some energy,” Ward said of the move.
“We need to have more energy as a team and he’s familiar with the Battle of Alberta. He understands the rivalry. He came in and, what can you say, multi-point games for Monny and Johnny and Sam gets the sixth goal — a big goal for us. All in all, a big night.”
Gaudreau’s goal was the prettiest of the evening, putting the hosts up 5-3 by rifling his seventh of the year top shelf on a play that started with his nice defensive effort at the other end.
There were so many significant contributions from Flames players that Elias Lindholm’s goal in the opening minute, not to mention his defensive work against the Oilers’ two big lines, were glossed over by many.
“Obviously you can’t say enough about Marky – he kept us in the game in the first period or it might have been a three- or four-goal lead for them,” said Ward of Jacob Markstrom, whose game-saving prowess has already become ho-hum around these parts.
“Again, I thought Backlund’s line really got us going in the second and the other guys picked up some energy off it and we were able to get our game going.”
Tkachuk found himself scuffling often with Puljujarvi of all people, eventually prompting the young Finn to take a slashing penalty, which led to Dillon Dube’s go-ahead power-play goal three minutes into the third.
“Perfect timing for this kind of game,” said Lucic of a tilt that involved very few of the post-whistle scrums and exchanges many expected following their highly combustible battle last season.
“Everyone had an impact on the game and everyone stepped up when they needed to.”