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Fiercely competitive Gaudreau will find additional fuel for his fire in playoff exit

by RYAN DITTRICK @ryandittrick /

On the short walk from the dressing room to the press lounge, Johnny Gaudreau took a fly-by glance out the players' tunnel, one last time.

The Flaming C and Stanley Cup Playoff logos remain emblazoned on the unfettered canvas, but the bowl was half-lit, and the only sound was that of a pin drop in the otherwise empty Scotiabank Saddledome. 

A quick shake of the head. 

Onward he walked.

Monday provided a wistful look into the psyche of the Flames' top offensive talent; because now, more than ever in his five years in these colours, he felt the burn of what unfolded over the past few weeks.

"Johnny," professed captain Mark Giordano, "is one of the most driven guys we have.

"You guys (in the media) don't see it nearly as much as I do in the room, but make no mistake, he feels it. 

"Both the pressure and the overall desire to succeed. He wants it bad. 

"To experience losses like the one we just had, especially when - deep down - we really felt we were going to make a run for it all, it's gutting.

"Johnny's no different. And with the pressure he puts on himself to do big things for this team, even more so."



Gaudreau is typically soft-spoken - humble, kind, but equally measured in how he carries himself in front of the press.

But even by his usually discreet standards, No. 13's year-end speech in the Ed Whalen Media Lounge deep in the bowels of the Scotiabank Saddledome was especially sombr for a man coming off a career-high, 99-point campaign. 

Naturally, a five-game, first-round loss in which he collected just one assist had drilled deep into his off-season outlook, already. 

As the sparkplug for a Flames offence that finished tied for second in goals with 289, and set the pace with a conference-leading and altogether gaudy +62 goal differential, he bore the weight of that, with thoughts of 'what could have been' still plaguing him 48 hours after the curtain fell on the 2019-19 season.

"Hopefully next year we'll have the same opportunity," Gaudreau said, lamenting the long road back to the post-season. "And hopefully then when I'm getting my looks, I'll find the net and help this team out."

Star players are born with that kind of moxie. 

The demanding type. 

And when things don't go to plan, emotions run hot and there's nowhere to hide with the spotlight set on the stat column.

The truth is, while an early exit may sting, Johnny Hockey has nothing to hang his head about. 

He smashed his previous career high by 15 points, came within a whisker of the century mark, was an NHL All-Star for the fifth time in five seasons, had 26 multi-point efforts including five with four or more points, two hat-tricks, a team-leading eight game-winning goals (three of them in OT) and - all told - was the catalyst for the team's first division title in 13 years. 



"I've played with him for a few years now, and I can say, with certainty, this was the best I ever saw him," Giordano said. "I mean, it's obvious when you look at the points. 

"But there were nights when he could have put up even more than he did, that's how dominant he was.

"Those are big, big games. He's not a big talker but when he plays liked he can, and does he can with the puck, it gets the guys fired up and they want to follow him."

Yes, the playoffs are a different beast and yes, the Colorado Avalanche got more out of their top line over a nine-day span, but the body of work speaks volumes and without Gaudreau's incredibly lofty contributions over the past eight months, it's a different conversation altogether. 

"You can look at all the numbers of the guys that are getting scrutinized, and they're all the big-ticket guys," said head coach Bill Peters. "So, if you don't put up numbers, you're taking (the criticism).

"But we believe in our group. They're good people and they care.

"You look at Johnny. He had the two breakaways (in Game 5), he had the one that went off Ian Cole on the road. The goalie was down, he pulled it in, he pulled it in, he pulled it in - and it hit him in the ass. If that goes in and the breakaway goes in, all of a sudden now you're not talking about the numbers being the way they are." 


Video: One-on-One with Johnny


But that, right there, shows how narrow the gap is between teams right now. 

With the Flames, Tampa Bay Lightning and Winnipeg Jets combining for only three wins and losing their opening-round series' in stunning upsets, it certainly begs the question:


"I think it doesn't matter how good of a season you had - individually, or as a team," Gaudreau said. "Every team in the playoffs is a good team. 

"There's a quote that (Jon) Cooper said in Tampa about Columbus: "One and eight seed; each team is really, really talented, a really, really good group. They made it into the playoffs, and that's difficult to do.' 

"It's something that we'll learn from this, too."

It's that little bit that seemed to sting Gaudreau the most. That they were so close, only to be tripped up in their spring for the endzone. 

And sometimes, the fear of losing and experiencing that pain all over again is the greatest motivation.

"I know what I'm capable of," Gaudreau said. "I showed it during the season - battled through some ups, some downs. 

"Playoff hockey, same thing. It's the same game I've played my whole life. Sucks that we have to wait so long to get back there, but when we do, I obviously want the chance to prove myself again."

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