Matt Stajan accomplished the improbable the other night. He didn’t just centre the Calgary Flames top line with Alex Tanguay and Jarome Iginla. He didn’t just score the overtime winner against the San Jose Sharks.
Stajan did all that and turned his head coach into a happy-faced, hugging bandit.
If you watch the video of Brent Sutter celebrating Stajan’s OT thriller, your response is likely to be: “That guy squeezing the shirt buttons off assistant coach Dave Lowry – that’s Brent Sutter?” Yes, it was and last Tuesday’s win over San Jose offered plenty of reasons for Sutter to drop his normally stoic façade, even for a few moments.
For one thing, the Flames have now won four in a row, which sets up their next crucial encounter, Thursday’s home stand against the Phoenix Coyotes. Every game now has postseason implications for a Calgary team fighting with four others for the last two berths in the Western Conference.
What’s helped keep the Flames in the mix is how much mileage they’ve gotten from both ends of their lineup. The stars are indeed playing well (Iginla has six goals and four assists in his last five games), but everyone is finding a way to add something – and Stajan is the most notable contributor.
That’s saying a lot given how hard Stajan’s time has been in a Calgary jersey.
With the Toronto Maple Leafs, the former second-round draft pick was asked to be offensively engaged. He once had 55 points and routinely scored 15 goals. After being shipped to Calgary in the Dion Phaneuf trade in 2010, Stajan soon found himself designated to the fourth line. His ice time diminished; his confidence waned.
When the 2010-11 NHL season ended, Stajan didn’t mask his disappointment in how he’d performed. He vowed to come back a better player.
“The role I was given at the start of this year was [to]be more of a role guy, play 10 minutes or less a night,” he said Wednesday, an off-day for the Flames. “I tried to do the best my every shift. I felt TK [Tom Kostopoulos]and Jacks [Tim Jackman]provided that spark that we needed at times. A lot of guys have stepped up with the injuries we’ve had.”
Having had his own game rise then fall at times, Tanguay made a point of talking to Stajan in the dressing room, telling him to keep going and to realize he was an important member of the group. Stajan proved to be a good listener.
“It’s tough to go through mentally what he’s gone through,” Tanguay explained. “The fans and media were tough on him. It’s good to see the results he’s getting. I always thought he was a smart player.”
And when injuries opened up a spot for Stajan on the Flames first line?
“Playing with top guys you always get a little more ice time, you get more power-play time,” Tanguay said. “You have a chance to be a hero.”
Stajan has played inspired hockey, scoring four points in his last two games and looking very relaxed doing it. The Flames are desperately reliant on that since their injury situation remained unchanged Wednesday: Mike Cammalleri, Lee Stempniak, Chris Butler and others will not dress against Phoenix.
Last season, the Flames lost all four of their games against the Coyotes. This season, Calgary has lost two of three. Perhaps a win will get another show from the now-giddy Sutter.
“I’m actually a pretty emotional guy; you guys don’t get to see it,” Sutter joked with reporters. “It’s playoff hockey. What we’ve had to go through in different ways, I was happy the guys prevailed.”
Asked to comment on the renewed character of his team, Sutter said it was a cyclical arrangement: the players played with faith; the coach rewarded them with his. Even rookie Sven Bartschi got the same treatment. Having scored twice in three games as an emergency call-up, Bartschi played in a lot of critical situations against San Jose.
“I wanted Sven’s skill set in OT,” said Sutter, who thought the same for Stajan.
“Maybe in scoring in OT was a nice boost for our club,” Stajan added. “That’s hockey. Things change quickly. You’ve just got to come to the rink and play hard.”