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FLAMES THREE STARS: Crowned in California opener

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Thursday night’s game between the Calgary Flames and Los Angeles Kings was the kind of tilt that made you realize what hockey fans missed most during last year’s pandemic-shortened season. It was a true rivalry game. There was a little love, some intense hatred, spectacular goaltending, and a few great goals.

In the end, the Flames claimed a 3-2 victory over their Pacific Division rival.

There was some love for Flames head coach Darryl Sutter and winger Trevor Lewis, who both made their first returns to the Staples Center. A thank you was plastered on the scoreboard and both former Kings offered their waves to the appreciative crowd.

A couple of Stanley Cup wins will do that for a fanbase.

The Kings fans, though, left unsatisfied. Whatever emotions Sutter felt were well-hidden as he bolted from the bench poker-faced at the buzzer.

Let’s get to the stars …

Third Star: Milan Lucic

The Lucic five-hole goals are getting to be an every other game thing. This time, Lucic swept the puck through two pairs of legs to snipe his seventh goal of the season through just 23 games. The 33-year-old veteran is playing smart and gritty hockey right now and is really showing his value.

His goal in the dying minutes of the first period helped the Calgary Flames get to the first intermission with the lead despite the fact they didn’t score first for just the fifth time this season.

But it was more than his play with the puck that earns him this spot. He’s moving his feet at a speed we haven’t seen for years and his awareness of the play was top tier on the night as well. Recognizing that defenceman Nikita Zadorov was without his stick as they retreated into their own zone, Lucic gave him his then raced back to the bench to grab another and get back into the play.

His goals give the team some real juice. They love to see the big guy score.

Second Star: Jacob Markstrom

Markstrom made 40 saves on the night and some of them were stellar. In the dying minutes of the game, Markstrom made the difference for the Flames. He stopped Viktor Arvidsson late, but made some beauties on Matt Roy and Adrian Kempe, too.

The big Swede is a massive reason the Calgary Flames lead the league in goals-against average (1.71) and save percentage (.948) on the road. Oh, and they’re second in penalty killing, too (88.2%). Markstrom was a perfect three-for-three on the PK on the night. Their record of 10-2-2 is also tops.

First Star: Matthew Tkachuk

Tkachuk still lives in Drew Doughty’s head rent-free. The Calgary Flames pest is the Kings defenceman’s nemeses. Their first head-to-head battle in more than a year lived up to the billing as post-whistle scrums and some serious hatred was passed back and forth for some heated exchanges.

Although he might regret his penalty for a late punch during one of their battles, Tkachuk made up for it the rest of the way.

The second-period goal Tkachuk scored using Doughty as a screen will live on forever in GIF form. It turned out to be the game-winner.

Again, though, it’s not the goal … at least not entirely the goal … that earns Tkachuk the praise here. He set the tone for his team for the night with his level of engagement. He finished with a game-high seven shots and spent a ton of time on the ice as Sutter went top-line heavy on the night.

For good reason.

There were plenty of good players on the night. Andrew Mangiapane scored again on the road and finished with two points. Mikael Backlund made a nice setup on his goal and that second line was solid again overall.

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