He wasn’t waving his stick in front of the puck, but as Milan Lucic escorted the slow-moving puck up the ice toward the empty net, the Calgary Flames winger resembled an ice athlete of a different sort.
“I was kind of a curler on that one – a sweeper – to make sure it was going in,” Lucic said of the empty net goal that helped secure a 5-2 win over the Chicago Blackhawks on Tuesday night. “I knew one of their guys was coming back.”
The guy coming back was Dominik Kubalik. Instead of whacking the puck into the open cage himself, Lucic ran a little interference.
“I saw it was going in and just wanted to make sure it was going in for him,” Lucic said.
The him, in that sentence, is linemate Trevor Lewis, whose long shot was accurate but crawling. And as meaningful as Lucic’s selfless act was to a guy who isn’t projected to score many goals of any type this season, even Lewis thought Lucic was nuts for bodyguarding the puck instead of claiming a second goal of the night for himself.
“He told me I should have put it in,” Lucic said with a laugh.
Former Stanley Cup champions all playing big roles
Lucic may not be a curler but he’s also been sweeping away any perception that lingered from last year about this team having chemistry or cultural issues. To the left of Lucic on Tuesday night in the media availability was Matthew Tkachuk, who was at the centre of some of that narrative last season.
Both have been prominently featured on the interview podium this year. Only one (Tkachuk) wears a letter on his chest, but both are team leaders.
Lucic, like his fellow veteran linemates Lewis and Brad Richardson, has become a key part of the culture. Vocal and honest about his disappointment after last year’s abysmal season, Lucic suggested in his season-ending interview that the missing ingredient was “between the ears” of the Calgary Flames players.
“It’s just getting back to the mindset of being resilient and getting back to the mindset of wanting to win,” Lucic said at the time. “I think what’s missing is between the ears, more than anything. You can have the best leaders in the world, we can bring in whoever the best coach is of all-time, whoever the best captain is of all-time but, as an individual, if you don’t buy into it, it doesn’t matter.
“I think the way it changes is when the individual completely buys into what the team is trying to sell.”
Sutter selling a new direction for top-heavy Flames team
Head coach Darryl Sutter has been selling better conditioning and stronger checking habits and structure since joining the team in March. One of his tactics was lobbying Calgary Flames GM Brad Treliving to bring in a couple more Stanley Cup winners to add to Lucic’s 2011 title with the Boston Bruins.
Lewis won two Cups with Sutter in Los Angeles in 2012 and 2014. Richardson was also part of that first Kings Cup run. They know what it takes to win. And if they can’t tell the younger members of the Flames how, they can show them.
“That’s a really good line for us. They check and they score and they play the right way. They thrive on winning. That experience is shining through with guys like that because they know what it takes to win,” Sutter said while chatting about Lucic’s classy move guarding the empty netter on Tuesday. “It doesn’t bother them who scores or who doesn’t. It’s about winning.
“It just tells you about those guys that have won championships. I think it’s still filtering through our team.”
Winning mindset and mental toughness trickling through team
Sutter pointed to the top line’s determination in a tied game while running on fumes after a long road trip as an example of the grind-line’s influence.
“There’s some plays where they were just trying to stick with it and in the past, other times, maybe they didn’t stick with it,” Sutter said. “It tells you they are learning about it, too.”
Tkachuk scored the winning goal in the third period. He gave credit to Lucic, Lewis and Richardson for extending that lead and taking some pressure off.
“People don’t realize how big those goals are when you can put a team away when their goalie is pulled,” Tkachuk said. “The past couple years, it seemed we never got those and kept teams in it until the end. It stresses us out a little bit.
“Just looking back to last year, I think that we would’ve maybe been tied 2-2 late in the third and probably given one up last year. We gave up points like that last year all the time.”
Apparently, the solution was adding a couple more grinders with championship experience.