CALGARY — It was the type of hit an NHL playoff series can be built around.
At the tail end of a tight opening period, Nikita Zadorov spotted Ondrej Kase trying to leave his zone with his head down, setting up the type of blast the Flames’ six-foot-six defenceman lives for.
The Maple Leafs, predictably, saw it as questionable, as Kase left the game.
The Flames saw it as the turning point.
For the Flames blue line it was only the start, as the rest of Zadorov’s back end brethren would soon find ways to join him centre stage against a relentless Leafs squad.
One night after the Flames’ defencemen racked up six points in a romp over Vegas, the lads repeated the feat, adding six more in a 5-2 win.
Two of the three goals scored by Flames defenders came in a three-minute span in which the hosts broke a 1-1 game wide open midway through the evening — the first time this season the sextet combined for a hattie.
Sure, Jacob Markstrom followed up his eighth shutout with a 46-save effort that tied a (surprising) franchise record for the most saves in a home game.
His 18 saves in a scoreless first period prevented the visitors from stealing this one early.
But the spotlight on this night belonged to the lads protecting him.
“All six of us played well tonight, even if you’re not on the scoresheet,” said Rasmus Andersson, whose two-point night included a late goal and a pass to Noah Hanifin that kickstarted a four-goal outburst for the Flames.
“If you look at it, we’ve got three defencemen scoring tonight, Z (Zadorov) lays out a really good hit that gets the crowd going, Guddy (Erik Gudbranson) and Tanny (Chris Tanev) are good on the PK every night.”
On this night the latter two anchored a penalty kill unit that blanked the league’s top power play on all three chances.
Not easy, with Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner and William Nylander buzzing around.
Tanev was at his shot-blocking best while adding a breakout pass to Johnny Gaudreau that led to an Elias Lindholm strike late in the second period.
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In the three minutes prior to that, Hanifin and Oliver Kylington scored 32 seconds apart to lift a raucous crowd to its feet as part of an intense matchup that felt an awful lot like a playoff tilt.
“We felt it for sure,” said Hanifin of an atmosphere jacked up by a large number of Leafs fans.
“You could tell there was a lot of jam in the building, especially after Z’s hit there it got pretty rowdy. It was a competitive game. It was a playoff-type of game, two good teams and that’s how we have to play. You want to be a team that can break teams down and use your building.”
That’s five wins in a row at home now for a team that has outscored opponents 24-4 over that span.
It’s a nice spot to be for a team with five more consecutive Dome dates on the docket.
“Now we’re starting to find that rhythm and get comfortable,” said Hanifin, who assisted on Kylington’s point blast.
“With all these home games we really have to take advantage. If we’re going to be a winning team we have to win in different ways. We can’t just rely on those top guys. Obviously they’re incredible for us but everyone has to contribute depending on the type of game it is.”
With the score out of hand in the third this one got physical, as the frustrated visitors crashed the net repeatedly, prompting Gudbranson and Zadorov to step in to demonstrate their worth in other ways.
This Flames club is not a fun team to play against.
Especially if the defencemen start taking the coach’s wishes for secondary scoring this seriously.
“We were trying to get them to shoot more tonight,” said Darryl Sutter of a blue line that didn’t score a game-winner until the new year.
“Over the course of the year your defencemen have to score to be successful in this league approximately 35 goals as a group, and we were under that. After tonight we might be close to it.”
Indeed, the lads are now at 20, adding their fourth game-winner in the last three weeks.
“It says a lot,” said Andersson of the team’s lopsided wins over measuring stick squads like Vegas and Toronto.
“We have good character in the room and were ready to play coming off the break.
“It feels really good to win back-to-back games especially at home and get the crowd going. Honestly, it felt like before this we didn’t really have any home games. We’ve got to build up the swagger and I think this was a good start.”