Cundari makes strong first impression as Flames wallop Wild 4-1
Another debut to remember for a Calgary young gun as 22-year-old nets two points
ST. PAUL, MINN. — Mark Cundari, in his very first appearance in the National Hockey League, made some racket.
Such as cheers in Calgary — and beyond.
“Right now, there’s a bunch of his buddies in Market Lane — people know what that is in Woodbridge (Ont.) — honking their horns as if Italy won the World Cup,” Michael Cammalleri said after Cundari’s spiffy debut — one goal, one assist — on Sunday. “I’m sure that’s what it feels like right now in Woodbridge. But hey, that’s how you script it — first game. I’m sure he’s all smiles. We’ll see if he gets any sleep.”
Such as boos at the Xcel Energy Center after he manhandled star Zach Parise in the late stages of the Calgary Flames’ 4-1 triumph over the Minnesota Wild.
“I’ve been dealing with that my whole career — a lot of crowds don’t like me,” said a grinning Cundari, who turns 23 on Tuesday. “As I gain my confidence, I’m sure you’ll hear a lot more booing from the fans of opposing teams.”
Part of the return from the St. Louis Blues for Jay Bouwmeester — Swiss netminder Reto Berra and a 2013 first-rounder being the other pieces — Cundari took a regular shift, worked special teams, too.
And, partnered with T.J. Brodie, that meant a pile of ice time — 24:54, to be exact.
The sturdy defender loved every minute of it.
“Realistically, I expected to come out there and play against big monstrous guys — you think the NHL is the premier league,” said Cundari, five foot nine, 195 pounds. “You get out there and you realize that you can play in this league. There’s a reason why you’re here.”
Cundari announced his arrival with a power-play conversion in the first period.
All alone at the right faceoff circle — his off-wing — he received the puck, got settled, then calmly screamed a wrister over goalie Niklas Backstrom’s shoulder.
“That’s a goal — patience, looking and looking to see what he has, no real passing lane, rips it right off the bar and in,” said Cammalleri, who, ever diligent, had fetched the rubber souvenir. “A big-time goal.”
Added Cundari: “I saw the space and let it rip, right? It was a great shot, in my opinion.”
Zach Parise, on one his night’s nine shots, tied it with a sure-handed sweep of the puck around Joey MacDonald. But the Flames goalie allowed nothing more, despite facing 35 pucks.
MacDonald’s heroics allowed the travellers to build on their lead — Mikael Backlund converting a rebound in the second period; Cammalleri roofing a power-play goal (on a primary feed from Cundari) in the third; Jiri Hudler dumping a puck into an empty net.
But, post-game, everyone wanted to talk about Cundari.
The coach happily obliged.
“I really had a good feeling, you know,” said Bob Hartley. “He has great body language. I’m quite impressed. He’s in the game. He’s alert. He’s talking. He’s not scared. A pretty good start.”
Cundari, as Brodie had reminded him late in the contest, was only a taffy-pull away from a Gordie Howe hat trick.
Did he consider it?
“I was just so tired at the end of the game, I was like, ‘If it happens, I’ll start throwing rights at someone,’ “ laughed Cundari. “I’m gassed. I’ll get to bed. After the phone calls are done” — first one, by the way, goes to his dad Robert — “and everyone’s sleeping on that end, I’ll be tucked in the sheets.”
Tireless, on the other hand, is Brodie.
Handling a team-high 27:59 — Ryan Suter worked 30:46 for the other guys — Brodie picked up two helpers. More than that, the 22-year-old skated with purpose.
“He’s becoming a real player, isn’t he?” said Cammalleri. “He’s really starting to understand just how effective he can be, just how well his skating and puck-carrying and hockey sense can translate . . . into him being so efficient out there. When you get a defenceman that’s starting to feel that way and can do multiple dynamic things out there — smart defensively, good stick, can get the puck, break it out himself, beat a forecheck, find guys, make rushes. I mean, that’s what everyone is looking for.
“You starting thinking around the league . . . you compare him to the young guys like (P.K.) Subban who can really carry the mail.”
Follow Scott Cruickshank on Twitter/CruickshankCH
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