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HART AND SOUL

Johnny Hockey is making a serious case for the Hart Trophy with an unbelievable first half

by TY PILSON @TyPilson / CalgaryFlames.com

No one has ever questioned Johnny Gaudreau's heart.

And after the season he's had so far, no one should be questioning his candidacy right now for the Hart.

He's been that great.

That consistent.

That dynamic.

And - perhaps most importantly - that clutch.

"Ya, I think so, for sure," agreed Flames captain Mark Giordano.

"I think the Hart Trophy should be given to the guys that come up in the big moments and help their team win games, and who's done that better this year than him, really?

"I mean, there's a select few guys that can do what he's been doing."

Given annually to the "player judged the most valuable to his team," the Hart Memorial Trophy is arguably the most prestigious award an NHLer can receive.

Aside from the Stanley Cup, of course.

Adorned with names such as Gretzky, Lemieux, Crosby, Ovechkin, Messier, Clarke, Lafleur and Orr, to name a few, Gaudreau is making a heckuva case this campaign to have his name etched alongside those greats of the game.

Yes, it's early.

Yes, there are a few others also making a strong case.

But, in the here and now, Gaudreau should be looked at as a frontrunner.

On Monday, he was announced as the NHL's First Star of the Week, thanks to his five goals and 11 points in a four-game span.

To follow that up, he went out that evening and scored twice to lead his team to a 4-3 win in Chicago as they finished a four-game road swing with a 3-1 mark.

Last week, Gaudreau was named to his fifth-straight all-star game and also selected as December's Second Star of the Month for his ridiculous 11 goals and 26 points to finish out 2018.

The New Jersey native has 64 points already and is on pace for 119, which would obliterate his previous high of 84 he put up in 80 games last season.

His 60 points in the team's first 42 games tied Bob MacMillan's franchise record for quickest to that mark. To put that in perspective, MacMillan did it way back in 1978-79 when the Flames played in Atlanta.

Gaudreau has 26 goals - already surpassing his total in 80 games last season (24) - and is just four off his career high of 30 he scored in 2015-16. If he keeps up this clip, he'd finish with 48.

Video: CGY@WPG: Gaudreau, Lindholm answer back with beauty

Known as one of the finest playmakers on the planet, he's shown a newfound flair for lighting the lamp and is third in that category at the moment, behind only Ovechkin, Jeff Skinner and John Tavares.    

However, to win the Hart you need more than just gaudy numbers.

You have to be your team's MVP, more valuable to those sitting in the stalls around you than anyone else in the league.

The Flames have 157 goals - Gaudreau has a hand in 40% of them.

They have won 27 games. Six times Johnny Hockey scored the game-winner.

He's had 19 multi-point games this season. Calgary's record over that span: 17-0-0-2.

The sum of all that has been the leading role in helping the Flames rise to the top of the Pacific Division and, as of Monday night, the Western Conference itself.  

So, ya, Gaudreau has to be in the Hart conversation.

"You know what, that's funny," said Flames assistant coach Martin Gelinas cracking his trademark smile, when posed the question following the team's morning skate in Chicago on Monday. "We were just talking about this in the coaches room. You know what, with the way he's playing right now and what he means to our team, I think we should be talking about that. No question about it. He's a big key to our offence, he's a big key to our team.

"With the way he's playing, it's something. He's playing with a lot of poise, he's playing extremely well. He definitely should be (in the Hart conversation)."

Giordano - currently having a career season of his own that has him among the players being bandied about for the Norris Trophy - said Gaudreau's production is driven by his competitive nature and desire, above all else, to win.

That, he figures, is exactly what the Hart is all about.

"I think what people don't see is how competitive he is," said Giordano. "The guys that are the best players in the league are because they want the puck in key situations and that's how he is."

Gelinas agrees.

"The biggest quality Johnny has is when the game is on the line, we need a goal, we need a big shift, we need something to happen on the ice, he makes it happen," he said. "He's got that quality. He has that competitive edge - he just wants to make that happen. He has a gift, obviously, with his speed to create time and space for himself.

"You give him an inch, you're done. So we're lucky that he's playing well right now and we need him to keep that up."

Described as one of the team's most impressive athletes by strength and conditioning coach Ryan van Asten, Gaudreau's combination of physical gifts - coupled with an other-worldly hockey IQ - creates a lethal package in today's game, where skill and speed are rewarded.

Derek Ryan, a newcomer to the Flames fold this season, had played with Gaudreau at the 2017 world championship for Team USA.

He got a small taste then of what No. 13 could do.

This season has been a veritable smorgasbord.

"He sees the game so well," marvels Ryan. "He makes those little plays that people are probably too scared to make most often.

"Another thing that stands out to me is his ability to get the puck and then he seems to get faster. There's not many guys that are like that - Sidney Crosby is like that, Connor McDavid … but most guys when they get the puck they tend to slow down a little bit and he speeds up and is able to make those little plays.

"He's fun to watch. He's a special player and it's fun to see him get hot."

Video: TBL@CGY: Gaudreau scores on partial break to tie game

When asked if there were any specific moments of Gaudreau magic so far that made him shake his head in amazement, he couldn't think of one.

It is, he said, simply routine.

"I think he does that more often than not, to be honest. There's lot of times we'll see something on the bench and look over to a teammate and say, 'Wow, that's pretty impressive.' He just makes those little plays that maybe the average fan doesn't even notice, but it's pretty impressive. The poise and confidence he has with the puck and the plays he's able to make at high speeds is second to none."

During the recent four-game road swing, media in every city wanted to talk about Gaudreau.

His exploits, of course, preceded him.

The league has taken notice.

Heck, even those closest admit they're watching something particularly special unfold before them on a daily basis.

"It's a little bit like your family," says Gelinas. "When you see your family every day, you can take them a little bit for granted. Sometimes I have to take a step back and say, you know what, we have a really special player here. And when you go and talk to different coaches or friends or fans and they talk about Johnny and what they see, you take a step back and say, 'Ya, we have something really special here.'

"He's a special player. He's a good guy, he's good in the room. We're lucky to have him."

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