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"His ability to make time and space for himself is unique ... For his size, what he's capable of accomplishing ... it's incredible."

by GEORGE JOHNSON @GJohnsonFlames /

The holiday season was threatening to be a decidedly un-festive affair.

It was three days prior to Christmas, 2014. Mired in a depressing nine-game losing string, the struggling Flames found themselves thrashing madly even deeper into the quicksand, trailing 3-0 at the Staples Center to the reigning Stanley Cup champion L.A. Kings.

But then Johnny Gaudreau took over.

Over the closing 22 minutes of play, the quicksilver winger was ho-ho-ho, mistletoe and every gift-wrapped present you'd ever dream of.

That night, a natural hat-trick - the final two goals arriving with goaltender Jonas Hiller on the bench and Flames' net empty in favour of a sixth attacker, at 17:48 and 19:01 of the third period - stunned the Kings' faithful and pushed the game into overtime.

In OT, a goal from skipper Mark Giordano pulled them out of their funk, sending them carolling back to Calgary for the break.

Gaudreau, though, was the undisputed catalyst of the resurrection: A game-high seven shots and a natural hattie.

From then on, the 5-foot-9 Hobey Baker winner was the equivalent of that must-have ticket for a hit show on London's West End. That page-turning best seller that everyone simply felt compelled to read. The chart-topping song on everybody's lips.

"You can't put it into words," marvelled Giordano. "He wants the puck in those types of situations."

An argument could be made that no freshman in Flames' annals captured the public's imagination to quite the same degree as Johnny Gaudreau did back in 2014-15.

You'd need trace back to Theoren Fleury and Joe Nieuwendyk to find anyone even remotely comparable.

"He's got bits of this guy and pieces of that guy," assistant coach Martin Gelinas said, trying to explain the phenomenon. "But in saying that, he's very much his own guy. And I think that's what makes him special.

"He's in a different class.

"In my time, Pavel Bure was so exciting. Every time you watched Pavel your eyes were glued to him because his speed, from Point A to B, was unmatched. Watch clips of Alex Mogilny. And you see something of Johnny there, too.

"But he's got a different type of body type than either those guys. He doesn't have the power Pavel had. Or maybe the explosiveness of Mogilny. But he does have a level of quickness I haven't seen before.

"His ability to make time and space for himself is unique. He comes at defencemen at 100 mph, turns on a dime and creates that six to eight feet he needs to complete the right pass. For his size, what he's capable of accomplishing ... it's incredible.

"He's the most young exciting player I've worked with in a long, long time."

By season's close, Gaudreau would accrue 25 goals and 64 points to tie for the rookie scoring alongside Ottawa's late-charging Mark Stone and be a finalist for the Calder Trophy as the league's top rookie.

"He's not just a Cookie Monster,'' praised coach Bob Hartley. "He's playing the game the right way. Johnny is a complete player, already. He has so many facets to his game."

No confidence, then, that Gaudreau's highly-hyped inaugural season dovetailed nicely into the Flames slamming the brakes on a five-year run of missing the playoffs.

And the fun was only getting started.

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