After they surrendered so many rushes to Winnipeg on Wednesday, it was refreshing to see the Calgary Flames seizing free ice themselves against the Ottawa Senators last night. In fact, it was better than that. The Flames did not score six goals last night because their opponent’s goofs and gaffes gifted them breakaways. The Flames scored six goals last night because they created their own space.

Shift after shift, the Flames pummelled the Senators by separating the puck from their bunched and clustered opponents in key moments. They shadowed and pressured and shoved and passed their way to open slabs of ice. Drawing Ottawa defenders towards them and suddenly pitching the puck in the other direction spread the rink open like velvet curtains on a vaudeville stage. And with all that space to occupy, the Flames put on a show.

Making it look so easy

— Calgary Flames (@NHLFlames) May 10, 2021

As slick as Mark Giordano’s pass to Johnny Gaudreau on the first goal was, its second assist deserves some attention. The puck support that Matthew Tkachuk provides in the defensive zone unlocks the entire sequence. As a winger, he begins that play by hovering along the wall. Elias Lindhom rightfully tails a battling Chris Tanev as the centreman assigned puck support duties. But the puck bounces away from Tanev. Lindholm becomes responsible for engaging in the new puck battle—but he needs support now, too. Tkachuk instantly recognizes that Tanev is tied up, so he needs to drift down and step up as the second man on the puck before a Senators forward does. After all, being outmatched and outnumbered eight feet away from your own net is… less than ideal. So Tkachuk jumps below the increasingly clogged goal line, retrieves the puck, flings it far from the clump of bodies in that corner and onto Giordano’s tape. And now the Flames captain has an endless expanse of ice through which he can laser a pass to a springing Gaudreau.

Watch the broadcast again. When Tkachuk swoops below the goal line, you can actually hear every minor hockey coach in Alberta swoon.

— Calgary Flames (@NHLFlames) May 10, 2021

Textbook puck support frees up ice for the Flames on their second goal, too. In the offensive zone, Joakim Nordstrom and Andrew Mangiapane execute a perfect cycle. Mangiapane is providing inside puck support that attracts two Senators away from the slot. Mikael Backlund parks himself in the slot. Mangiapane has the instincts and insight to flick the puck to his centreman the second those Senators really crowd him. Again, the Flames capitalize because sticking close to the puck carrier grants the supporting forward a chance to separate the Senators from the puck and exploit the open ice.

What a dish

— Calgary Flames (@NHLFlames) May 10, 2021

Now, in quintessential Tkachukian fashion, the Flames alternate captain creates space on his goal not by shovelling the puck away from defenders but by shoving the defender himself. Honestly? The more you watch it, the funnier it gets. Tkachuk burrows himself in the slot. Tkachuk bonks a defenceman away from him. Tkachuk bats the incoming puck over the goal line. Now, this has to be the simplest and crudest route to freeing up ice there is. But it’s effective. And we all know Tkachuk is at his best and most useful when he’s bumping bodies and potting goals at the same time. In this case, the former action made the space available to accomplish the latter.

Gotta blast

— Calgary Flames (@NHLFlames) May 10, 2021

Finally, blink and you’ll miss it, but Milan Lucic zips a pass to Glenn Gawdin for the second assist on Michael Stone’s goal that eerily resembles Mangiapane’s dish to Backlund. Facing Giordano as he regroups, Lucic lumbers through the neutral zone along the boards. The Senators are changing right before his eyes, and a forward in white is huffing right beside him. It’s safe to assume that Lucic is aware that two Senators at once will be collapsing on him the moment he receives the outlet pass from Giordano. So, he doesn’t hesitate. Lucic slingshots the puck directly away from the Ottawa pressure, stretching the ice laterally so Gawdin has half the rink as a highway for him and Stone to cruise down towards the net. And as we can see from that release, Stone’s engines were absolutely revving thanks to all that space.

By the time the Flames scored their fourth goal, their win was cemented. Derek Ryan dazzled and dangled his way to feeding Dillon Dube for a fifth goal. Tkachuk betrayed some impressive vision on the powerplay by corralling the puck, glancing at the four Senators flocking within the right circle and threading a diagonal pass to the top of the left one—stretching the ice, indeed—so Giordano had all the space in the universe to notch the sixth. But this hockey game ended in the second period. The Flames dominated because they paved themselves open stretches of ice through close puck support, shrewd passes and pure aggression. They owe their goals—and their sighs of relief as they stave off mathematical elimination for another moon—to these healthy habits and active instincts. Hopefully no one forgets them during the off-season.

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