Johnny Gaudreau had a penalty kick and two assists and played a part in his new team forcing the old one into extra time.
But his first game back in Calgary after leaving to sign with the Columbus Blue Jackets in free agency ended with Gaudreau facing pressure, losing his footing after a collision and watching Dillon Dube score the Flames’ game-winner by 4-3 in overtime. Monday at the Scotiabank Saddledome.
“The first time back [brought] a lot of emotions,” Gaudreau told reporters after the game. “A little nervous before the game started, but I was excited to be back.”
Gaudreau’s night can be viewed in two ways: his overall performance and the spectacle surrounding his comeback.
Calgary led 2-0 when Columbus finally tied it midway through the second period. Gaudreau, who posted a team record 22:54 in ice time, set up the opener with a cross pass to Kirill Marchenko with 10:56 remaining.
The Blue Jackets tied it at 2 less than a minute later with Gaudreau creating another cross that led to Patrik Laine scoring in a single period with 10:08 remaining.
Gaudreau was also on the ice for the Jackets’ equalizing goal less than five minutes into the third period.
Gaudreau played the last turn in regulation and the last turn in overtime before his second turn finally ended up colliding with Noah Hanifin, who forced the turnover leading to Andrew Mangiapane setting up Dube’s game-winner.
Coming back from a two-goal deficit only to be at the center of the events leading up to the game-winner was only part of what made Gaudreau’s first game in Calgary since leaving the Flames riveting.
Gaudreau and the Blue Jackets were booed as they took to the ice before the national anthems. He started the game on a line with Laine and Jack Roslovic before he was booed on his first touch.
His second turn was marked by the cacophony of “JOHN-NY! JOHN-NY! JOHN-NY!” while his next turn showed what makes him one of the most dangerous players in the league. The Flames were in the Blue Jackets’ zone when Gaudreau intercepted an errant pass from MacKenzie Weegar, who was then hooked by Chris Tanev before taking a penalty kick.
The boos continued to cascade throughout the Saddledome as Gaudreau picked up the puck and went to the net only to have his shot go over Dan Vladar’s glove with 14:46 remaining in the first period. Gaudreau capitalized on another error by Flames in his fourth turn when he took control of the puck, sped up the left wing and fired a shot off Vladar’s mask and into the crowd.
The jeers continued at the beginning of his tribute video, but Gaudreau received a standing ovation before the cameras cut to him on the video board. Gaudreau, who was on the bench, stood up and waved to the fans.
Then, they booed him again for the rest of the night.
“For the most part, it felt good to see everyone standing up and clapping and cheering me on,” Gaudreau said. “And then five seconds later they start booing again. It’s what I expected coming here. It’s a great fan base and they’re passionate fans. I loved it. It was a special night for me.”
Said Dube: “I think that shows what a good player he was and how important he was to this organization, because you don’t get a reaction like that if you’re not that important.”
Gaudreau’s return to Calgary came with the expected reactions from the first game of a player in his old home along with some unique items. At the morning skate, some of the Blue Jackets jokingly booed Gaudreau, who laughed and smiled when he touched the puck as a way of “getting him ready” for the game.
Then, of course, there were the signs. A sign read, “I’m still your #1 fan, Johnny Gaudreau,” followed by an offer to trade Gaudreau’s stick for some Skittles. Another sign read: “We drove 3 hours just to boo Gaudreau.”
There were also fans who got creative with their Gaudreau sweaters, and one of them had a makeshift plaque with the name “BOODREAU” on it.
“For the most part, it was nice to see everyone standing up and clapping and cheering for me. And then five seconds later they started booing me again. It’s what I expected coming here. It’s a huge fan base and they’re passionate fans. I loved it It was a special night for me.”
“We knew there was going to be that kind of atmosphere. Johnny had a great game,” Blue Jackets coach Brad Larsen said.
Before coming under his scorn, Gaudreau worked to become one of the franchise’s most beloved faces. He was a fourth-round pick in 2011 who came in concerned about being a smaller player. He put those worries to rest by being one of the best players in collegiate play, winning the Hobey Baker Award in his junior season at Boston College.
He left BC after three seasons and scored 20 goals along with 64 points in his first full season, leading to being named an NHL All-Star and All-Rookie Team. It would be the start of six All-Star Game appearances he would make with the Flames.
A three-time 30-goal scorer, Gaudreau’s final season in Calgary became the best of his career. He finished with career-highs in goals (40), assists (75) and points (115) and also scored game-winning goals in nine games. He set the stage for Gaudreau, a pending unrestricted free agent, to have one of the biggest storylines of the offseason.
The Flames were already preparing for life without pending restricted free agent winger Matthew Tkachuk, who told them he wouldn’t sign a long-term extension, leading to his being traded to the Florida Panthers. The hype surrounding Gaudreau’s free agency saga was that it potentially could have ended with him signing somewhere closer to his hometown of Carneys Point Township, New Jersey, across the Delaware River from Philadelphia.
Instead of signing with the Philadelphia Flyers or the New Jersey Devils, Gaudreau surprisingly decided to sign with the Blue Jackets on a seven-year contract with an average annual value of $9.75 million.
Life without Gaudreau and Tkachuk raised questions about how the Flames will score. Finding consistent offensive production remains a challenge for a team sitting in the final wild-card spot in the Western Conference by two points over the defending Stanley Cup champion Colorado Avalanche, which has three games in hand.
As for the Blue Jackets, their first season with Gaudreau hasn’t gone as planned. Key players like All-Star forward Jakub Voracek and two-time All-Star defenseman Zach Werenski suffered long-term injuries. Werenski is on long-term injured reserve, while Voracek is one of five Blue Jackets on the IR.
Even with the overtime point, the Blue Jackets are last in the Eastern Conference and tied with the Anaheim Ducks for the fewest points in the NHL. But it also means they are among the most notable contenders who could be in line to win the draft lottery and possible projected No. 1 pick, Connor Bedard.
“I was recruited in 2011. I was part of this organization for 11, 12 years,” Gaudreau said. “They gave me an endless amount of support; they gave our team an endless amount of support and I want to thank all of you for being such great fans and welcoming me to your city and treating me well. Me and my family really well.”