SUNRISE, Fla. — An ovation was expected, but this came especially early. As the last of the Calgary Flames to leave the ice during the pre-game warmup, Jonathan Huberdeau and MacKenzie Weegar were treated to a loud and appreciative roar from what was formerly their home crowd.
A few hours later, at the tail-end of an emotional and entertaining affair, Huberdeau was hearing boos. This was nothing personal — the fans at FLA Live Arena jeered each of the Flames’ shootout selections.
And then, the best part …
When Huberdeau sizzled a blocker-side shot past old pal Spencer Knight, there was momentarily a hush. It was the same story when defenceman Rasmus Andersson scored after a filthy fake in the fifth round of the breakaway competition, lifting the not-so-suntanned side to a 5-4 shootout triumph in the first meeting between the Flames and Florida Panthers since that blockbuster summer trade.
“I’ve probably never shot in a shootout before, so I know Knighter thought I would probably deke,” Huberdeau explained. “So that’s why I took a shot, to surprise him.
“It was good and obviously here, I wanted to win. It was big, getting the goal in the shootout here. That was cool.”
Indeed, this will be remembered as a happy homecoming.
There were the warm-and-fuzzies during warm-up. “Pretty special,” as Huberdeau put it.
The ending was even better.
“I wanted to beat these guys really bad,” Weegar said. “I feel like that’s a vintage Panther game — 5-4 in a shootout. We had lots of those games on the other side. I’m happy we got the two points, that was the biggest thing for me and Johnny. That was a weird game, but it was a lot of fun. I enjoyed it.”
A lot of them did — and not just the guys who once owned oceanfront property in the Sunshine State.
Adam Ruzicka tallied twice and added an assist, continuing to capitalize on his promotion to skate on the Flames’ first line and second power-play unit.
Nikita Zadorov and Blake Coleman also tickled twine for the out-of-towners, while Jacob Markstrom was especially sharp in the shootout.
Old friend Matthew Tkachuk, who headed south in the first sign-and-trade in NHL history, scored on a deft deflection and assisted on Sam Reinhart’s man-advantage marker, but he was denied in the tiebreaking portion and wound up on the losing side. Colin White and Eetu Luostarinen were the other marksmen for the Panthers.
Andersson, with 18 career goals in the NHL, turned out to be Calgary’s secret weapon.
“He scores in the shootout all practice. He’s a lock,” Weegar beamed. “Right away, when he got picked, I had a good feeling about it.”
They all left with a good feeling, and that certainly didn’t seem like a sure-thing for a squad that had lost of their previous 10 games. The Flames improved to 8-7-2.
“Obviously, there’s a lot of emotions for a lot of guys out there today, but it was really nice to get a win,” Andersson said. “That’s a move I’ve done for quite some time. I took a few shootouts in Stockton (in the AHL) and it worked back then, but it was a long time ago. It was nice to see it go in and, honestly, it’s just nice to get a win. It was a much-needed one.”
AROUND THE BOARDS
There were a whole lot of fans still wearing No. 11, the digits that Huberdeau donned during his decade-long stint in Florida. He departed as the franchise record-holder in both games played and points. “I didn’t expect to have that many jerseys out there,” Huberdeau said with a smile “That was cool to see that” … Weegar on the warm welcome, which also included a standing ovation after a first-period video tribute to the pair of former Panthers: “They showed a lot of love to us, and it really meant a lot to me” … On almost any other day, Adam Ruzicka’s three-point pile-up would have been the big story. He capped a scrambly sequence on the power-play with a glove-side goal and later ripped a quickie past Knight after a faceoff win by linemate Elias Lindholm. In between, the 23-year-old left-winger spotted Zadorov chugging up the ice as the trailer on an offensive rush and plattered the pass for his blue-line buddy, who cashed through the five-hole. Ruzicka, despite being scratched for 10 of the first 11 games this fall, is now up to eight points on the season — the same number as Huberdeau and more than Coleman, Dillon Dube, Andrew Mangiapane and others. “But it’s still a short amount of time, right?” Ruzicka stressed post-game. “Three or four games is not enough. Just got to keep it going until the end of the season.”
OFF THE GLASS
Flames skipper Darryl Sutter was proud of his squad, saying “we fought back through a lot of adversity during the game.” He scowled when asked about the obvious storyline — the return of Huberdeau and Weegar to their old stomping grounds. “It’s been, to be quite honest, way too much talk about it,” Sutter groaned. “Guys get traded. Guys sign. What’s the big deal. I mean, Nazem (Kadri) won a Stanley Cup last year and he played his first game against Colorado and it wasn’t a big deal, first game of the year, But this is a big deal? I mean, good players move around, it’s what they do. I said it before — somebody gives you $75 million, we’re all going” … Markstrom, who started his career with the Panthers, made 31 saves in the visiting crease. He delivered four denials in the shootout, including a superb snag after Tkachuk blasted a slapper on his turn … Brett Ritchie made an early exit. The fourth-line thumper wasn’t on the bench for the third … The Flames can now shuffle the shorts and flip-flops to the bottom of their suitcases. The next stop on this six-game junket is Philadelphia, where they’ll face off Monday with the Flyers (5 p.m. MT, Sportsnet Flames/Sportsnet 960 The Fan).