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Johnson's Saddledome debut one to remember

Chad Johnson helped lead the Flames to their first win of the season on Tuesday

by George Johnson @GeorgejohnsonCH / CalgaryFlames.com

CALGARY, AB -- A black cowboy hat is generally associated with abject villainy.

Some lily-livered varmint who'd steal the cattle off a feller's land or the donations out of the church collection plate.

Think, say, Jack Palance or Lee Van Cleef.

The one being modelled late Tuesday night by Chad Johnson, though, actually is presented to a hero, the guy who cleans up Dodge City, goes out on tumbleweed-strewn Main Street to stare down the bad guys and winds up winning the hand of the fair damsel by the fade-out.

(In fact, the hat is a gift from the Calgary Police Service further cementing it's good guy status, no matter what the colour)

"My dad had a cowboy hat,'' recalled Johnson, savouring the Calgary Flames' initial win the season and his first for the franchise he grew up supporting. "He went to the Stampede all the time, had the moustache, all that.

"I can't say I had a cowboy hat, though.

"I had cowboy boots. I'd go to Stampede, too, as I think everyone did.

"But, no, not a hat."

There were certainly other candidates worthy of a fitting:

*The struggling partnership of Sean Monahan and Johnny Gaudreau, breaking out of their funk in perfect tandem on the overtime winner in the 4-3 shading of the Buffalo Sabres.

*The truculent Matthew Tkachuk, sniping his first career goal to pull the Flames level early in the third period and launching both Matt Moulson and Tyler Ennis into orbit.

*Micheal Ferland, frisky and involved, scoring his first of the season and playing to the identity that can make him a solid power forward at the top level.

The Flames can only hope the game-winner, scored at 2:26 of OT, is the launch pad for Monahan and Gaudreau to reach once more for the stars.

The big moment rekindled memories of recent glories, Gaudreau lobbing a short pass of only a few feet, as softly a soap bubble, to Monahan in a soft soft behind Sabre coverage and the big centreman burying a shot behind goaltender Robin Lehner.

Video: BUF@CGY: Monahan wins game with point-blank wrister

The sensation of relief was palpable.

At 0-2-1 prior to puck-drop Tuesday, this didn't represent the shedding of a mere money off the backs of the Flames.

More along the lines of King Kong.

"I think everybody needed that goal,'' acknowledged Flames' coach Glen Gulutzan afterwards. "When I say everybody, I mean probably the fans, coaches and Mony himself."

On a night of firsts, it also represented Gulutzan's first W behind his second NHL bench as a head knock.

"Honestly,'' he said, "I was more excited for the guys. You get to know your team, be around the guys for a month. We've got a great group and they're trying.

"They're really putting out there. I like their effort. I've never questioned their effort.

"But they're squeezing a little bit. To get that off we'll move them forward.

"So we needed it and they needed it."'

Johnson's own contribution was large when needed most. His most luminous stop undoubtedly arrived early in OT when the superb Ryan O'Reilly strolled out of the corner absolutely untouched and tested his old teammate twice from close range.

"It's funny,'' mused Johnson. "The one on O'Reilly there, we actually practiced that (together). They do it every day after practice, it's passed out of the corner and he'll get one and come to the net.

"That identical play.

"So I had a good read on him. It was almost like practice again. I was happy I made the save because he sniped a few in practice on me."

Tkachuk's first-ever NHL snipe couldn't have come at a better time. At 4:52 of the third period, barreling down the left side, the 18-year-old caught Lehner napping slightly, zipping a shot in just inside the near post to tie matters 3-3.

"That's what's great about it,'' said Tkachuk. "You always want to get that first one out of the way as quickly as possible and move on from there.

"That's exactly what I wanted."

"It's nice to see,'' chimed in Monahan. "Obviously the smile's not going to be off his face for a couple days. That goal was really timely and helped keep us in the game.

"We didn't start the way we wanted but the way we won means a lot to the team. I think the comeback, and the urgency we found, is huge."

Yes, the manner. Coming from behind. Sticking with the script.

For so long, the evening seemed to be setting up for yet more disappointment. The Flames were carrying play, generating more chances, more shots, but found themselves behind on three occasions.

"You have to learn how to win,'' reminded Johnson. "You can have all the skill in the world, do amazing things, score goals … but you still have to learn how to win, whether you're playing well or not.

"In the third period we played desperate. That was good to see.

"We stuck with it.

"This builds confidence for the systems that we have and the way we have to play. When you win hockey games and play a certain way you think 'Okay, we can do this.'

"When you're not, you can start second-guessing yourself.

"So this is big for us."

Johnson tugged on the of brim of the hero's black cowboy hat.

"It means we won a hockey game,'' he said. "If it's me or someone else gets to wear it, I'm fine with that."

Yes, yes, but was he absolutely positive he never owned one at any point during his growing-up time out Deer Ridge Way?

"Nope."

No matter.

On this night, an important one in the rebranding of the product, the hat fit as snugly as if he'd just moseyed out of Tombstone or Deadwood.

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