There was a moment in Thursday night's game against visiting Philadelphia when Johnny Gaudreau (aka Johnny Hockey) – all 5 foot 7 of him – took out Flyers defenceman Luke Schenn along the boards.
As hits go, it didn't register high on the Scott Stevens scale for visible impact. But it accomplished what hockey hits are supposed to do. Schenn, feeling pressure, made an errant pass into the middle that was intercepted by Gaudreau's linemate Jiri Hudler. Hudler carried it into the zone, dished it off to Dennis Wideman and Wideman broke a tense goalless tie by firing a shot past Flyers goaltender Steve Mason.
Gaudreau did not register a point on the play, but would go on to add three official points later in the game to take over the NHL's rookie scoring lead from the Nashville Predators' Filip Forsberg. Gaudreau's goal gave him 20 on the season. With 56 points after 70 games, Gaudreau is also the first Calgary rookie since Jarome Iginla in 1996-97 to reach 50 in his inaugural NHL season.
Nothing seems to faze him, and the chemistry he's developed with Hudler and centre Sean Monahan means coach Bob Hartley has left the line intact for months now. In fact, against the Flyers, during an opportunity to play five-on-three, Hartley called his timeout to rest his top line. Ultimately, they responded to the opportunity with a goal, Gaudreau calmly tapping in a cross-crease feed from Hudler.
Interestingly though, it was the hit on Schenn – which earned him the sponsored "Crunch Of The Game" award – that had Hartley smiling.
"That was a clip on our video this morning," said Hartley, after Friday's practice. "That's what we're asking everyone. On our team, we want everyone playing the same way. Obviously, there are different roles, but our recipe is the same for everyone. We're asking the same commitment. Look at Johnny, how many times he backchecked. Yesterday, two or three times, he backchecked back in our zone. He was the first one on the puck. There are very few rookies who can read this and who are willing to do this.
"This guy brings the entire package. Small package. Big game."
It is a measure of Gaudreau's adaptability that he is prepared to play a complete game that has endeared him to coaching staff, as the Flames continue to stick around in the Western Conference playoff chase, with the Columbus Blue Jackets on tap for a Saturday afternoon date.
Some teams might absolve their smallest player from the body-contact game. Not Calgary.
"The coach says he expects everything from everyone, whether you're 5 foot 8 or 6 foot 5," Gaudreau said. "That was a clear shot for me, not to lay the guy out, but just to give him a little bump and try to throw him out of the play. Thankfully, it caused a little turnover down there and then we went down and scored."
There has been a fear all season long that Gaudreau, because of his size and the fact that he played a shortened U.S. college season the past three years, would eventually hit the wall – and that his scoring totals would tail off as the season went along.
In reality, there has hardly been a hiccup. The toughest stretch for Gaudreau came right at the start of the season, when he failed to score in his first five games and Hartley made him a healthy scratch for the sixth.
At that point, there was speculation he might be sent to the minors to learn the pro game in a less demanding environment. Instead, Hartley gave him another chance, put him back in the lineup, and he responded with a two-point outing his first game back. Since then, the longest stretch he's gone without a point is three games – a consistency that many players with more experience cannot duplicate.
"Look at the start of his season," Hartley said. "Struggling, like any college kid of his size would do – but he found a way.
"He's just focused on everything he does – whether it's preparing his stick, or working in the gym. I've seen an unbelievable progression in every part of his game – because he wanted it. I remember this summer, at my hockey camp, I had dinner with him and I told him, 'Johnny, we're going to give you every opportunity to make the team.' And he looked back at me and said, 'That's all I want.' And he took charge of the rest."
Hartley talked about "the killer instinct" he wants to establish on his hockey club.
A killer instinct isn't necessarily the first thought that comes to mind when you see the baby-faced Gaudreau, but it is there, for sure. He has a rubber-band-man style of play, in which he rolls off the checks that others are trying to put on him and finishes the ones he needs to.
A month into the season, Forsberg was the runaway leader in the rookie scoring race – and it looked as if his major competition for the Calder would come from either the Los Angeles Kings' Tanner Pearson or the Florida Panthers' Aaron Ekblad. Ekblad is still the favourite, because he is having an excellent year as a teenage defenceman. But Pearson has been hurt and Forsberg, after scoring 22 points in his first 18 games, has measurably slowed, where Gaudreau – like a wind-up toy – just keeps on coming at you.
"It starts with his maturity," Hartley said. "Just look when we score a goal. Whether he's on the ice, or on the bench, he's like a kid at the circus. He's having fun scoring goals. He's so unselfish. I got on his case many months ago to shoot more. Now, I like the balance in his game. He reads the play. If his teammate is better placed than him, he's going to give it there. If not, he'll take the shot. That was the balance we wanted him to have in his game. This guy is so much fun to coach. He's quite a competitor.
"To me, there's a great race for the rookie of the year," Hartley concluded, "but he's pulling away."