- Ryan S. Clark is an NHL reporter for ESPN.
Johnny Gaudreau had a penalty shot and two assists and played a role in his new team forcing his old one into overtime.
But his first game back in Calgary after leaving to sign with the Columbus Blue Jackets in free agency ended with Gaudreau facing pressure, losing his balance after a collision and watching Dillon Dube score the winning one-timer in the Flames’ 4-3 overtime victory Monday at the Scotiabank Saddledome.
“The first time back [brought] a lot of emotions,” Gaudreau told reporters after the game. “A little nervous before the game started but I was excited to be back.”
Gaudreau’s night could be viewed in one of two ways: his overall performance and the spectacle surrounding his return.
Calgary had a 2-0 lead when Columbus eventually drew level midway through the second period. Gaudreau, who logged a team-high 22:54 in ice time, set up the first goal with a cross-ice pass for Kirill Marchenko with 10:56 left.
The Blue Jackets tied it at 2 less than a minute later with Gaudreau setting up another cross-ice pass that led to Patrik Laine scoring on a one-timer with 10:08 remaining.
Gaudreau was also on the ice for the Jackets’ tying goal just less than five minutes into the third period.
Gaudreau played the final shift of regulation and in the final shift of overtime before his second shift ultimately ended with him colliding with Noah Hanifin, who forced the turnover that led to Andrew Mangiapane setting up Dube’s game winner.
Coming back from a two-goal deficit only to be at the center of events that led to the winning goal was just part of what made Gaudreau’s first game back in Calgary since leaving the Flames enthralling.
Gaudreau and the Blue Jackets were serenaded with boos when they took the ice before the national anthems. He started the game on a line with Laine and Jack Roslovic before he was booed upon his first touch.
His second shift was marked by the cacophony of “JOHN-NY! JOHN-NY! JOHN-NY!” while his next shift showed what makes him one of the league’s most dangerous players. The Flames were in the Blue Jackets’ zone when an errant pass from MacKenzie Weegar was picked off by Gaudreau, who was then hooked by Chris Tanev before being awarded a penalty shot.
Boos continued to cascade throughout the Saddledome as Gaudreau gathered the puck and closed in on the net only to have his shot go wide over Dan Vladar’s glove with 14:46 left in the first period. Gaudreau took advantage of another Flames miscue on his fourth shift when he gained control of the puck, sped down the left wing and fired a slap shot that went off Vladar’s mask and into the crowd.
The booing continued at the start of his tribute video, but Gaudreau received a standing ovation before the cameras cut to him on the video board. Gaudreau, who was on the bench, stood up and thanked the fans by waving at them.
Then, they went back to booing him for the rest of the evening.
“For the most part, it felt nice to see everyone standing up and clapping their hands and cheering for me,” Gaudreau said. “And then five seconds after, start their booing again. It’s what I expected coming here. It’s a great fan base and they’re passionate fans. I loved it. It was a special night for me.”
Said Dube: “I think that just shows how good of a player he was and how important he was for this organization, because you don’t get a reaction like that if you’re not that important.”
Gaudreau’s return to Calgary came with the expected reactions from a player’s first game back in his former home along with a few unique items. At morning skate, a few of the Blue Jackets jokingly booed Gaudreau, who laughed and smiled, when he touched the puck as a way of “preparing him” for the game.
Then, of course, there were the signs. One sign read, “I’m still your #1 fan Johnny Gaudreau” followed by an offer to exchange Gaudreau’s stick for some Skittles. Another sign read, “We drove 3 HRS just to boo Gaudreau.”
There were also fans that got creative with their Gaudreau sweaters, with one of them having a makeshift “BOODREAU” nameplate.
“We knew it was going to be that kind of environment. Johnny had an excellent game,” Blue Jackets coach Brad Larsen said.
Before he was the object of their scorn, Gaudreau worked to become one of the beloved faces of the franchise. He was a fourth-round pick in 2011 who came with concerns about being a smaller player. He shook off those concerns by being one of the best players in the collegiate game, winning the Hobey Baker Award in his junior season at Boston College.
He left BC after three seasons and scored 20 goals along with 64 points in his first full season, which led to him being named an NHL All-Star and to the All-Rookie Team. It would be the start of six All-Star appearances he would make with the Flames.
A three-time 30-goal scorer, Gaudreau’s final season in Calgary became the strongest of his career. He finished with career highs in goals (40), assists (75) and points (115) while also scoring nine-game winning goals. It set the stage for Gaudreau, a pending unrestricted free agent, to have one of the more prominent stories of the offseason.
The Flames were already preparing for life without pending restricted free agent winger Matthew Tkachuk, who told them he wouldn’t sign a long-term extension, which led to him being traded to the Florida Panthers. The expectation surrounding Gaudreau’s free agency saga was that it could have potentially ended with him signing somewhere closer to his hometown of Carneys Point Township, New Jersey, across the Delaware River from Philadelphia.
Instead of signing with the cap-strapped Philadelphia Flyers or the New Jersey Devils, Gaudreau surprisingly decided to sign with the Blue Jackets on a seven-year contract carrying a $9.75 million annual average value.
Life without Gaudreau and Tkachuk created questions about how the Flames will score. Finding consistent offensive production remains a challenge for a team that sits in the final Western Conference wild-card spot by two points over the defending Stanley Cup champion Colorado Avalanche, who have three games in hand.
As for the Blue Jackets, their first season with Gaudreau has not gone to plan. Key players such as All-Star forward Jakub Voracek and two-time All-Star defenseman Zach Werenski sustained long-term injuries. Werenski is on long-term injured reserve while Voracek is one of five Blue Jackets on the IR.
Even with the overtime point, the Blue Jackets are last in the Eastern Conference and are tied with the Anaheim Ducks for the fewest points in the NHL. But it also means they are among the most notable contenders who could be in line to win the draft lottery and possible select projected No. 1 pick Connor Bedard.
“I was drafted in 2011. I was part of this organization for 11, 12 years,” Gaudreau said. “They gave me an endless amount of support; gave our team an endless amount of support and I want to thank them all for being great fans and welcoming me in their city and treating me well. Me, and my family really well.”
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