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FLAMES EXTRA - TOP BILLING

Johnny, Mony and Ferly tore up November and made a solid case as one of the best - if not the best - lines in hockey

by GEORGE JOHNSON @GJohnsonFlames / calgaryflames.com

Audacious in imagination. Ruthless in execution. Truculent in spirit.

Johnny, Monny, Ferly.

All three bring their own unique party-favours to the clambake.

Start with Johnny Gaudreau, shedding defenders with the ease of a snake slipping out of its skin, making the puck dip and dance, his own personal plaything.

Move along to Sean Monahan, somehow dematerializing from view at the incisive moment, only to reappear somewhere else, somewhere open, somewhere dangerous, just in time to plunge a dagger deep into the heart.

And wrap things up with Micheal Ferland, snapping the puck like a wet towel in a stiff wind, wallpapering a rival along the half-wall or creating a total goaltender eclipse at the tip of the blue paint.

They combined, the three of them, for a November to Remember. 

Opening up with a modest two-point aggregate on the second of the month in a 2-1 decision over the Pittsburgh Penguins, they proceeded to go on a tear, compiling 47 points (23G, 24A) and 115 shots on goal over 14 games.

You need trace back, waaaaaaay back, to the early '90s, to Joe Nieuwendyk, Gary Roberts and Sergei Makarov to find a Flames line racking up trendier numbers over a month-long span.

"That,'' acknowledges Monahan, suitably impressed, "is pretty cool company. Those are three icons in the history of this franchise."

Only a couple of Hockey Hall of Famers and the best left-winger - to date - ever to ply his trade for this organization.  

"You have Makarov as Johnny, Nieuwy as Mony and Roberts as Ferly,'' reasons Flames' boss Glen Gulutzan.

"I can see that."

As December dawned, Gaudreau found himself tied for third league-wide in points and second in assists. Monahan, meanwhile, held a share of third position in goal-scoring. And Ferland was playing the best of his three-full-year NHL career.

Indisputably the Flames' go-to line.

But the most lethal in all of hockey?

Everyone will have an opinion in that particular debate but there's a case to made for them.

"I don't think any of the three of us look at other teams' top lines and say: 'We want to be better than them','' counters Monahan.

"I don't think that's how you get better. We just want to be the best line we can be. That's our goal. We don't really compare ourselves to others."

Well, if he won't, others are only too glad to.There've been no end of eye-catching trios across the board roughly a third of the way into the season:

Hyman-Matthews-Nylander out east in Toronto, Schwartz-Schenn-Tarasenko in St Loo, Giroux-Couturier-Voracek in Philly and, most electrically, Namestnikov-Stamkos-Kucherov in Tampa Bay.

Calgary's big guns, though, needn't defer to any of them.

"If they're not right at the top, they're certainly in the conversation,'' reckons Flames' GM Brad Treliving. "The good thing about it, you look to them to generate offence, obviously, but they've been responsible on both sides of the puck. They've played against top lines and been as dangerous as anybody.

"We need them to be. That's what top players, No.-1 lines, do."

During the torrid November, Gaudreau pieced together a six-game goal-poaching run, Ferland a five-gamer of his own while Monahan set off on a five-in-three tear.

Like all legit No.-1 lines, they didn't merely flash in and out of games, but dominated shift-to-shift.

"They have,'' lauds Gulutzan, "that little bit of everything you want. Johnny's an elite generator on the wing. The other guy I coached who had that sort of quality was Ray Whitney.

"Mony, for me, has a fantastic shot but his greatest asset is his ability to find open space and loose pucks. I've never seen a player that can do those things as well. And that, creating space for yourself, is, to me, the hardest skill to master. Unteachable, really. You either have it or you don't.

"Then you add Ferly to the line, a bit of a bull, great, great shot, can finish, be physical, clears space for the other guys on the line, keeps the flies off them.

"And they can all score.

"That, to me, is what sets them apart."

The line certainly delivered some eye-popping performances through November. The paying patrons at the Scotiabank Saddledome, though, aren't the only ones left gasping and gaping.

"All I can tell you is they're sure are fun to watch from where I stand,'' says goaltender Mike Smith with a slight smile. "The usually have the puck, which means I'm not so busy.

"They have all the different elements you need for a top line. And they're effective everywhere. They play great on the road, as everyone saw on that last trip.

"I'm not telling anyone anything they don't know, but they're very important to the success of our team."

Gaudreau and Monahan, of course, a while ago reached a stage in their professional relationship where it wouldn't be in the least surprising if they started finishing each other's sentences in a conversation.

Theirs is an interesting dynamic. Usually, the centreman is called upon to be the primary distributor, the winger assumes the role of triggerman.

Think Gretzky-Kurri, Oates-Hull, Trottier-Bossy.

In this case, though, the tables are usually turned.

"That's the thing about Johnny,'' lauds Gulutzan. "He's an elite passer, one of the best in the game, but he's shooting the puck more this season which keeps goalies honest and helps Mony find those open areas I was talking about."

Ferland, of course, represents the wild-card. He's delivered sporadic stretches of impressive power-forward play over his short NHL tenure.

This season he's taken it to a whole other level.

So far he has 11 goals and 15 points in 25 games and is on pace for a record season.  

"Remember,'' points out assistant coach Martin Gelinas, "Ferly was up with those two guys earlier in the season and the chemistry, well … wasn't quite there yet.

"It takes a special player to play with Johnny. People just assume that it's easy to play with talented players. And of course it is, in a way. 

"But those guys, they do things differently. At a different speed. They think differently.

"Johnny's so quick when he exits the zone, making passes to him is sometimes hard. But Ferly has the ability to make those passes.

"The thing with Ferly is consistency. We knew he had the shot. Could be physical. Fight. Be a net presence. But he wasn't showing that on a consistent basis.

"Ferly gets it (now).

"He's a day-to-day player now."

There are no Ferland For Mayor lawn signs dotting front lawns across the city, as popped up during the playoffs of 2015, but the big winger has settled in and become not just a feel-good playoff story but a reliable presence entrusted with escalating responsibility.

"I'm feeling more and more comfortable all the time,'' says Ferland. "Playing with Johnny and Mony, I know what my job is: Get to the front of the net. Most of my goals are scored in close.

"Johnny's so good with the puck and Mony always seemed to find his spot. Playing on a line with those guys is so much fun."

Even the odd evening when the unit is held off the scoresheet, it's been causing more than its fair share of chaos. 

The three men ended the month with no points over the final three starts but no one could put that down to a lack of prime-time opportunities.

As an example, during Thursday's 3-0 shutdown of Arizona, the line, though held off the scoresheet, combined for a dozen shots on Coyotes goaltender Scott Wedgewood.

"We're getting chances,'' said Gaudreau, who scored a goal and collected an assist in a Dec. 2 loss to the Oilers. "A lot of chances. This last month, seems like a ton. And when we're getting them, we're finding the net. These last few games we've maybe slowed down scoring-wise, but the opportunities are still there and that's all you can ask for.

"We're playing head-to-head against other team's top lines, they're matching against us on the road.

"We are, I'd say, a pretty complete line."

Among the game's best and brightest.

"I hope we stay together for a long time,'' continues Johnny Hockey, campaigning. "Look back and see all the top lines of the past, how long they played together. Me, Hudes (Jiri Hudler) and Mony started developing that the first two seasons.

"We're getting to that point with Ferly now. You don't wonder. You know. You don't even need to look. You don't even need to call for it at times.

"When you find that kind of connection with linemates, it's a pretty special thing.

"So, yeah, you're right, it's been a good month, November. 

"But hopefully we're only just getting started."

The November to Remember is in the books, providing a glimpse, a taste, a tease of the line's untethered potential.

While leaving Flames' devotees to ask themselves what wonders December might have in store.

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