T.J. Brodie didn't exactly ride to the rescue last week with the Calgary Flames' season already in jeopardy. Brodie was there all along, but on the sidelines, patiently rehabilitating a broken bone in his right hand that he suffered in the exhibition season. And it threw all the Flames' best-laid plans out the window.
Without Brodie, an exceptional skater and Mark Giordano's usual partner a year ago, the Flames had to move their defensive pieces in and out, and they looked out of sync at every turn.
Brodie made an unexpected return last Wednesday in Ottawa, however, and in three games, he has mostly been the Flames' best player, culminating with a star turn in the team's 5-4 victory over the Oilers in Edmonton Saturday. That also marked the Flames' first regulation win of the season. A dozen games in, that's not exactly how playoff dreams are forged.
Calgary is 3-8-1 out of the gate, facing a road game against the Colorado Avalanche on Tuesday night, and luckily still in the playoff race because so many of their Pacific Division foes have struggled, too.
Brodie's impact is easy to understate. He's one of those under-the-radar players who you need to watch play live before you can fully appreciate his impact. His game is perfectly suited to the modern era – a little on the small side (182 pounds on a 6-2 frame), he's an exceptional skater, has good hockey sense and can get the puck calmly out of the trouble. Of late, coach Bob Hartley has taken to playing him with Kris Russell, who has struggled in the early going – at minus-14, he has the league's worst minus rating.
"No matter what the situation is, if your team is losing, it's tough," Brodie said in an interview. "Obviously, when you're hurt, it's harder because there's not much you can do about it. It's one of those things – you want to get out there and help, but at the same time you can't let that dictate when you come back.
"Mentally, it's going to take some time for stuff to come back, as far as reading the rush and the plays, but keeping the legs in shape is definitely big. If you had to get your legs back in shape and get the mental side of the game back at the same time, it'd be a little different situation."
Brodie's return may help sort out Calgary's defensive play, but goal remains a sore spot. With Jonas Hiller suffering from an undisclosed injury, Karri Ramo, who'd cleared waivers in October and had been on the roster of their AHL affiliate in Stockton, Calif., is back in the lineup. And since he played in Edmonton, he will start against the Avalanche on the strength of Hartley's "win and you keep playing" goaltending philosophy.
Up front, Johnny Gaudreau, a Calder Trophy finalist last year, is tied for the league lead in assists with 11, but has just the one goal. Gaudreau has lately been playing with rookie Sam Bennett, instead of usual centre Sean Monahan, with whom he had a great deal of success last season.
"Lines, for me, it's as good as your last shift," Hartley said, adding: "We're trying to get offence throughout all four lines. I like the balance and the chemistry we have on our lines right now. Hopefully, it keeps going."
Calgary won the game in Edmonton by getting a fluke goal by Michael Frolik with less than 10 seconds to go in regulation and despite blowing a two-goal, third-period lead. As opposed to last year when the Flames were dynamite in the final period, they are mediocre so far, failing to hold leads on the rare occasions when they actually have them.
"Whether it's a good goal or a bad goal, we take them all," Hartley said. "Remember the Winnipeg game, when we gave up a late goal? That left a real sour taste in our mouth. So [Frolik's goal], that was the hockey gods paying us back."
Frolik has been around long enough to know there's time to turn things around.
"Obviously, the start isn't what we're looking for, but there are so many games left," he said. "You win a couple in a row and you're right back in it. You just can't look too far ahead, but take it day by day. What we did in Edmonton, we just need to do the same again – same battle level, same forecheck, same effort – and build on that."