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EDMONTON — Geoff Ward has now accomplished what a pair of predecessors could not — he’s helped the Calgary Flames over that first hump, guiding his team to a series win.
In doing so, Ward has also continued to make a heck of a case to lose the ‘interim’ tag from his job title.
In his bid to become the Flames’ full-time head coach, this is the ultimate reference.
“The one thing I will say is he’s brought our group way closer together,” said captain Mark Giordano after his club advanced through the NHL’s first-of-its-kind play-in round with a 4-0 shutout in Thursday’s clincher against the Winnipeg Jets. “He’s just a guy who demands respect. He has been there and he’s won before, so his words carry a lot of weight.”
This is a squad that doesn’t boast a lot of been-there, done-that.
Before grounding the Jets in their best-of-five play-in, the Flames hadn’t won a postseason series since 2015 and then not for a decade-plus prior to that.
While the Stanley Cup qualifiers don’t count as a playoff round, it’s not an insignificant feat to be the guys on the smiling side of the handshake line, now an exchange of gloves-on fist-bumps due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“That’s a huge step for us,” Ward agreed after Thursday’s win. “It’s a big, big step.”
There’s a lot of credit to go around for Calgary’s ouster of the injury-riddled Jets.
Cam Talbot didn’t have to steal any of his three victories, but the 33-year-old netminder — told on the eve of Game 1 that he had earned the starting job — outduelled Vezina Trophy favourite Connor Hellebuyck at the opposite end.
The top trio of Johnny Gaudreau, Sean Monahan and Elias Lindholm combined for five goals, albeit two into an empty net, and a dozen points against the Winnipeggers. More important was their commitment to their defensive coverage, their hustle while back-tracking and Johnny Hockey’s willingness to absorb the occasional crunch to keep the puck moving in the right direction.
Matthew Tkachuk became the centre of attention after a controversial collision with Mark Scheifele, but he didn’t get caught up in the extra-curricular activity. In fact, he wound up drawing five penalties. You could make a case for either of Tkachuk’s linemates, Mikael Backlund and Andrew Mangiapane, as the most effective forward in the series.
And in Thursday’s Game 4, the third line of Sam Bennett, Dillon Dube and Milan Lucic took their turn as difference-makers. Lucic scrapped, Dube and Bennett both scored and all three tossed their weight around.
Throughout the series, the Flames’ blue-line brigade was solid. From this vantage point, TJ Brodie and Rasmus Andersson were the best of the bunch.
Just be sure to give some credit to the boss, too.
Ward, promoted from associate to interim head coach after the Bill Peters controversy in late November, picked the right puck-stopper.
The 58-year-old had his team prepared, hardly a sure-thing after a prolonged pause due to the pandemic.
If his group was guilty of taking the injury-riddled Jets lightly in Game 2, he ensured that it didn’t happen twice.
Ward, who won a Stanley Cup as an assistant with the Boston Bruins in 2011, brings a sense of calm and steady. For a team with a history of post-season shortcomings, including a swift see-ya despite top-seed status last spring, that is an important asset.
Although he had never previously worked as a head coach at the NHL level, it seems the former school-teacher feels like he has nothing to prove. It’s not about him, and that’s a good thing.
“I think he has done a really job of us buying into one another, buying into the system, making us believe in ourselves and believe in each other,” said Lucic, who goes way back with Ward — they sipped champagne together with the Bruins. “Yeah, the systems and Xs and Os and all that type of stuff is there, but from a motivating standpoint and bringing the guys together and making us believe in it all, I think that’s the biggest thing he’s done.
“I think Wardo has done a really good job of making everyone feel important and embrace their role.”
Since so much of the coaching happens behind closed doors, it’s sometime hard to judge the strengths and weaknesses of the skipper.
Glen Gulutzan was supposedly too nice. One bizarre stick-tossing tirade did not change that narrative.
Peters, who lost his job amid allegations of past misconduct, was supposedly too much of a hard-ass.
Ward, who was actually short-listed for the interview process when Gulutzan was hired and then brought aboard as an associate on Peters’ staff, may be the happy-medium.
On the same day that Peters’ resignation — that was the official wording — was announced, he cranked the tunes in practice to lighten the mood, realizing the boys hadn’t been having a whole bunch of fun at the rink. In the weeks that followed, he cranked up a stale offence while also making some important adjustments to their defensive posture.
Along the way, he has delivered some well-timed rips, too. He questioned their compete during a February funk, warning then they wouldn’t have any playoff success if they didn’t get that sorted.
Some fans would like the Flames to chase a big-name (and big-budget) coach like Gerard Gallant or Peter Laviolette, but the current boss is really creating something. It’s telling that when you ask the skating stars about his impact, it’s as much about work environment and relationships as forechecking structure and defensive details.
“We tightened up quite a bit, and you can see we’re not giving up nearly as many chances,” Talbot said after his 31-save shutout in Game 4 at an empty Rogers Place. “We pack it into the middle of the ice really well, and we don’t give a whole lot of chances from the middle. We’re doing a great job of forcing guys to the outside, forcing guys to the top, and then guys are getting in shooting lanes, blocking shots and forcing them to go back to below the goal-line. So we’re not giving up a ton of Grade A chances.
“But in the room, too, (Ward) is such a good motivator. He’s a calming influence. He’ll give you the kick in the ass when you need it, but he’ll also praise you when the time is needed. He’s been a heck of a leader for us and a lot of the credit has to go to him stepping into that role and really owning it.”
Credit to him for accomplishing what two of his predecessors couldn’t.
The Flames are over the first hump. Their next opponent will be either the defending champion St. Louis Blues or the Dallas Stars. Either way, the crew from Calgary will be considered the underdogs.
Ward will tell you the task is far from finished.
True, but it’s looking more and more like this job is his to keep, without the ‘interim’ title.
Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2020