Johnny Gaudreau had a penalty, two assists and played a part in his new team forcing his old one into overtime.
But his first game back in Calgary after leaving to freehand a sign with the Columbus Blue Jackets ended with Gaudreau under pressure, losing his balance after a collision and watching Dillon Dube take the scored a game-winning one-timer in the Flames’ 4-1. 3 overtime win on 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 can be viewed in two ways: his overall performance and the spectacle surrounding his return.
Calgary took a 2-0 lead when Columbus finally equalized midway through the second period. Gaudreau, who posted a team-best 22:54 in the Ice Age, set up the first goal with a cross-ice pass for Kirill Marchenko with 10:56 left.
The Blue Jackets leveled 2-2 less than a minute later, with Gaudreau setting up another cross-ice pass that resulted in Patrik Laine hitting with a one-timer with 10:08 left.
Gaudreau was also on the ice to score the Jackets’ decisive goal less than five minutes into the third period.
Gaudreau played the last shift of regulation and in the last shift of overtime before his second shift eventually ended by colliding with Noah Hanifin, who forced the turnover that led to Andrew Mangiapane setting up Dubes game winner.
Coming back from a two-goal deficit only to be at the center of events that led to the game-winning goal was just part of what made Gaudreau’s first game in Calgary since leaving the Flames so exciting.
Gaudreau and the Blue Jackets were booed as they stepped onto the ice ahead of the national anthems. He started the game on a line with Laine and Jack Roslovic before being booed at his first touch.
His second layer was marked by the cacophony of “JOHN-NY! JOHN NY! JOHN-NY!” while his next shift showed what makes him one of the most dangerous players in the league. The Flames were in the Blue Jackets’ zone when a miss by MacKenzie Weegar was intercepted by Gaudreau, who was then hooked by Chris Tanev before being awarded a penalty.
Boos continued to tumble through the Saddledome as Gaudreau collected the puck and headed for the net only to fire his shot well over Dan Vladar’s glove at 14:46 of the first period. Gaudreau took advantage of another Flames miscue on his fourth shift when he gained control of the puck, raced down the left wing and unleashed a slapshot that went off Vladar’s mask into the crowd.
The booing continued into the beginning of his tribute video, but Gaudreau received a standing ovation before the cameras cut to the video board to him. Gaudreau, seated on the bench, stood up and thanked the fans by waving at them.
Then they booed him again for the rest of the evening.
“Most of the time it was nice to see everyone standing up and clapping their hands and cheering for me,” Gaudreau said. “And then, five seconds later, they start booing again. That’s what I expected when I came here. It’s a great fan base and they’re passionate fans. I loved it. It was a special night for me.”
Dube said: “I think that just shows what a good player he was and how important he was to this organization because you don’t get that kind of reaction when you’re not that important.”
Gaudreau’s return to Calgary came with the expected reactions to a player’s first game in his former home, along with some unique items. During morning skating, some of the Blue Jackets jokingly booed Gaudreau, who laughed and smiled as he touched the puck to “set it up” for the game.
Then, of course, there were the signs. A sign read, “I’m still your #1 fan Johnny Gaudreau,” followed by an offer to trade Gaudreau’s clubs for skittles. Another sign said, “We drove 3 hours just to boo Gaudreau.”
There were also fans who got creative with their Gaudreau sweaters, with one of them sporting a makeshift “BOODREAU” name tag.
“Most of the time it felt good to see everyone standing up and clapping their hands and cheering for me. And then, five seconds later, they started booing again. That’s what I expected coming here. It’s a great fan base, and they are passionate fans. I loved it. It was a special night for me.”
“We knew it was going to be such an environment. Johnny put in an excellent game,” said Blue Jackets coach Brad Larsen.
Before he was the object of their scorn, Gaudreau worked to become one of the most popular faces in the franchise. He was a fourth-round pick in 2011 who had concerns about being a smaller player. He shook off those concerns by being one of the top players in the college game, winning the Hobey Baker Award during his junior season at Boston College.
He left BC after three seasons and scored 20 goals and 64 points in his first full season, which led to his being named an NHL All-Star and 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 last season in Calgary became the strongest of his career. He finished his career with record goals (40), assists (75) and points (115) while scoring nine winning goals. It set the stage for Gaudreau, an upcoming 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 informed them he would not be signing a long-term extension, resulting in his being traded to the Florida Panthers. The expectation surrounding Gaudreau’s free agency saga was that it could potentially end with him signing somewhere closer to his hometown of Carneys Point Township, New Jersey, across the Delaware River from Philadelphia.
Surprisingly, instead of signing with the Philadelphia Flyers or the New Jersey Devils, Gaudreau opted for a seven-year contract with the Blue Jackets averaging $9.75 million per year.
Life without Gaudreau and Tkachuk raised questions about how the Flames will score. Finding consistent offensive performance remains a challenge for a team sitting in the last Western Conference wildcard spot, two points clear of defending Stanley Cup champions Colorado Avalanche, who have three games to go.
As for the Blue Jackets, their first season with Gaudreau didn’t go according to plan. Key players like All-Star forward Jakub Voracek and two-time All-Star defenseman Zach Werenski suffered long-term injuries. Werenski is on long-term injured reserve, Voracek is one of five Blue Jackets on IR.
Even with the overtime point, the Blue Jackets are last in the Eastern Conference and tied with the Anaheim Ducks for the fewest points in the NHL. But it also means they’re among the most notable contenders to stand in line to win the draft lottery and possibly pick predicted No. 1 pick Connor Bedard.
“I was drafted in 2011. I was part of this organization for 11, 12 years,” Gaudreau said. “You have given me endless support; have given our team endless support and I want to thank them all for being great fans and for welcoming me to their city and treating me well. Me and my family really good.”