They don’t hand out trophies with two months left in the season, nor do they pencil in the conference finalists.
However, those who tuned into Saturday’s matchup between the Calgary Flames and Colorado Avalanche have a pretty good idea why this one was dubbed a preview of the Western Conference Final, and why several members of the Calgary Flames are in line for major awards.
The final play of a wildly entertaining 4-3 overtime win by the Flames gave a Hockey Night in Canada audience a chance to see why Lindholm is the clear frontrunner for the Selke and Gaudreau is a legitimate Hart Trophy candidate.
In the opening minute of the extra frame Lindholm made a great defensive play to steal the puck from Mikko Rantanen before circling to see Gaudreau streaking up the right wing. Banking a perfect pass off the boards to send Gaudreau in alone with Nathan MacKinnon giving chase, the Flames leading scorer beat Pavel Francouz to punctuate the Flames’ 13thwin in 15 outings.
The NHL’s top team had been slain.
The Flames proved to the hockey world, and more importantly themselves, they have the skill, depth and system to walk out of one of the toughest buildings in sport with the win.
They did it by battling back from two first-period deficits, which included a Gabriel Landeskog goal 42 seconds in.
Undaunted by an Avs team that was 30-1-3 when scoring first, Lindholm responded with a powerplay goal less than two minutes later, only to have to even the score late in the frame when he scored a mere 66 seconds after Andre Burakovsky beat surprise starter Dan Vladar.
The resilience this Flames club has shown of late is making quite a statement to the rest of the league.
“That was huge,” said Lindholm, whose two goals and assist helped move him to plus-42 to lead all NHL forwards.
“Two good teams. They have a good record at home (23-3-3) … it was a good test for us and it was a good game.”
Sutter chose to start the backup in what was arguably the biggest measuring stick game of the year.
It speaks to the team’s depth, as well as the confidence he has in his troops.
Winning 27 of the last 30 points up for grabs tends to do that for a team.
“He’s been good all year,” said Lindholm of Vladar. “Obviously he hasn’t played a lot, but every time he gets in there he’s ready and he battled hard and it’s nice to see him get the win.”
Once again the top line was sublime, with all three collecting three points.
The rugged defenceman’s fourth goal in his last 10 games prompted Avs coach Jared Bednar to replace Darcy Kuemper with Francouz.
With the effort Gaudreau passed Kent Nilsson and Gary Suter for fifth all-time in Flames scoring, punctuating his 22ndgoal of the year with a raucous team celly following his sixth game-winner of the season.
The Flames stars rose to the occasion, but so too did the rest of the squad.
Making his first start since Feb. 15, Vladar was outstanding, making 32 saves, including seven on MacKinnon and five on Nazem Kadri — including on a golden chance with three minutes remaining.
Gudbranson and Nikita Zadorov were front and centre throughout what Bednar called “a playoff-type hockey game,” prompting Kevin Bieksa to joke on the broadcast they were the league’s second-best pairing behind Cale Makar and Devon Toews.
“Tough team, tough rink — they can do a lot of damage off the rush,” said Sutter afterwards.
“Lindholm made a great play against Rantanen to knock him off the puck and get it back. Johnny outraced (MacKinnon), held onto it and made a great play.”
Not all wins are created equally, and this one should go a long way towards reinforcing that when the players stick to Sutter’s game plan, anything is possible.
They just keep proving it, but the tests don’t stop anytime soon.
The win kickstarted a nightmarish schedule that includes hosting the Battle of Alberta Monday, Alex Ovechkin and the Capitals Tuesday, the defending Cup champs Thursday and the Red Wings Saturday before returning to, gulp, Colorado once again next Sunday.
That’s six games in nine days against a raft of top teams — none bigger than the one they slayed on Saturday.