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Without fans, Lucic ready to get team fired up for big Game 1 battle with Jets

by RYAN DITTRICK @ryandittrick /

Without fans and the essential, ear-splitting volume fused into the raucous, pre-game ambience, things will feel a bit different. 

Tonight, it's on everyone to step up and create their own emotion. 


"Don't put it past me," Johnny Gaudreau teased during Saturday's pre-game press conference. "I could throw a big check out there, you don't know that!" 

Hey, whatever gets the blood flowing. 

But the truth is, no one really knows what to expect. 

The players got a taste of it on Tuesday when the Flames dropped a 4-1 decision to the Edmonton Oilers, but that was an exhibition game with nothing - other than practice - on the line. 

When the puck drops at 8:30, they're playing for keeps.  

Fans or no fans, the team that comes out of the gate fully adjusted to the 'new normal' of their primetime TV gig will likely have an advantage. 

It's on the players themselves to ramp up the intensity, elevate their teammates and feed off the energy between the boards. 

"Especially for a guy like me, you love to feed off the emotion of a playoff crowd, regardless of whether you're at home or on the road," said Milan Lucic. "The energy always gets pumped up a few notches. 

"But in this situation, that's where the preparation comes in. You've got to create your own emotion, your own energy. That's the experience that I'm going to try and bring to the team tonight."

Over the past few weeks, Lucic - in particular - has been lauded for his leadership and experience in all sorts of different, high-pressure scenarios. This, of course, is a beast entirely unto itself, but with 114 of the Flames' 304 games of playoff knowledge, it's fair to say he'll be leaned on heavily to stabilize the group and help push the right buttons, when needed. 

Lucic, though, is convinced the team is ready to handle the pressure.

"Our practices have been really high pace and intense and we've done battle drills and all that type of stuff to simulate the feeling as much as possible," he said. "The good thing about our exhibition game is that it was spirited, there was emotion, there was hitting, there were scrums. All the things you need to do to prepare for an elimination-style game.

"Big plays, big goals, all that type of stuff. But it's who - for me, in my experience - it's who's willing to do the little things more often, more consistently and stick with it. When I talk about little things, that's breakout passes, getting the puck out, dumping the puck in, winning those little battles, faceoffs, blocked shots. 

"Yes, you need the big goals. Yes, you need the big saves. But it's the repetitiveness of all those things that gets you to know where you want to go."


Video: "Everyone's pretty jacked up"


The Flames are fortunate to have a number of players with complementing skill-sets at the ready to lead in so many different ways out of the shot. 

There's Lucic and his Cup-winning pedigree. 

Gaudreau, who make plays and get the boys going with a nifty bit of stick work. 

And then there are the foot-soldiers. The guys who maybe don't get enough credit.

Zac Rinaldo is one of those - mentioned, by name, for his ability to spark up a fire and be the ultimate teammate inside the bubble.  

"Our pump-up guy has got to be Rhino," Lucic laughed. "He'll probably get us fired up before the game, for sure."

Rinaldo, who took a turn on the fourth line, alternating with Sam Bennett, Tobias Rieder and Mark Jankowski at the morning skate, could get into the game tonight. 

If he does, the coach has plenty of belief in what he can do. 

"There are a lot of different things that he does well," said interim head coach Geoff Ward. "But the thing that I really like about him is that he's a team guy, first and foremost. He'll do whatever the team wants him to do, and he's never unhappy about it. He comes to the rink every day - and it's a great day every day for him to be around his teammates, to be in the National Hockey League, be a contributing member of a team. 

"He gets the other guys up. He's one of the guys in our room who's an emotional leader. Sometimes you don't get to choose to be that guy, but when you have the ability to raise the emotional level of your teammates, it's important, and he's certainly able to do that.

"He knows exactly what's at stake. He knows there's a fine line with him, with how he plays, but he knows how to follow that line really well in terms of playing his game without going over the edge."

If the early games of Saturday's Cup Qualifiers are any indication, that's key. 

Penalties are being called at a higher rate than we typically see in the playoffs, meaning discipline could play a big factor in the opening night of action. 

But with the way the Flames have prepared for this - Game 1 of hopefully many in the Alberta capital - there's no shortage of focus. 

Or excitement. 

"The guys are dialled in to everything we've been doing in practice," Ward said. "I thought in our morning skate today, the guys were loose - but not too loose.

"Now, that the preparation is over.  

"Now, we've got to go out there and drop the puck."

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