CALGARY — His ability to stickhandle while walking a tightrope now well known around the NHL, Johnny Gaudreau gets special attention from opposing teams in his second year in the league.
The enemy’s alarm bells go off when the 22-year-old Calgary Flames forward has the puck on his stick. Gaudreau receives more chops to his gifted hands and the back of his speedy legs than last season, when he was a finalist for the NHL’s rookie award.
“I definitely notice it a lot more than last year,” Gaudreau said Wednesday following practice at Scotiabank Saddledome.
“No one likes getting slashed on the wrist or on the back of the legs, but I’ve been getting it all my life. Nothing new to me. The only thing you do is find the net and score a goal. That’s the only way to make them stop doing it. Find the net, create havoc, create offence.”
Gaudreau leads the Flames in goals (17), assists (22) and shots on goal (100) despite the additional coverage. The shifty, slippery left-winger has five goals, including a hat trick, in his last three games. Gaudreau ranked seventh in NHL points entering Wednesday’s games with 39.
“It’s no secret he’s going to get all the tough matchups, but he’s done a great job of fighting through that stuff,” Flames captain Mark Giordano said. “When he gets the puck and has it on his stick, that’s when he’s the most intimidating.”
The Flames (17-17-2) host the division-leading Los Angeles Kings (23-11-2) on Thursday. Karri Ramo will get his eighth straight start in Calgary’s net.
The Flames aim to reboot after Tuesday’s 1-0 loss to the Anaheim Ducks, which ended an 11-game winning streak at the Saddledome.
The Ducks took efforts to contain Gaudreau to new heights Tuesday. While the Ducks managed to hold Gaudreau off the scoresheet, he had a team-high four of Calgary’s 14 shots on net.
Early in the game, Gaudreau produced one of the few good scoring chances the Flames had all night. The five-foot-nine 157-pound forward had Ryan Kesler, one of the NHL’s premiere defensive forwards, in his face the majority of the night.
Gaudreau figures he must be doing something right to deserve such scrutiny.
“Last night was the most I’ve noticed it in a while, but it’s part of hockey,” Gaudreau said.
“It’s pretty unique or special when you’ve got another team keying on you and trying to eliminate you from being productive offensively. For myself, it’s special to have a team want to do that to you. I try to beat them and score a goal. It was fun.”
He gave Kesler a retaliatory whack at one point and escaped penalty.
“Johnny can dish it,” Hartley said. “That’s no problem. Obviously teams are taking liberties at some point on Johnny because of his talent, because of his size, but I think he’s handling it well.”
Gaudreau says he doesn’t retaliate in anger, but to send a message he can stand up for himself.
“I can’t take it the whole game so I’ve got to make sure I give it back and make sure they know I don’t like it,” he explained.
“I get more mad or upset when we’re losing a game or when I get a scoring chance and don’t find the net or in the defensive zone I lose my man.”
Gaudreau wears wrist guards as insurance against skate slashes, but hasn’t increased the size or length of his gloves to protect his hands or wrists.
When asked if he’d ever broken his hand or fingers, Gaudreau replied no and superstitiously rapped his knuckles on his wooden dressing-room stall to continue that luck.
“I think I’ll be fine, hopefully,” he said.