December 31 2010 12:53PM
The Calgary Flames play their first game of the post-Darryl Sutter era tonight at the Scotiabank Saddledome as they'll take on the Colorado Avalanche for the third time this season (7 pm, Sportsnet West and The FAN 960). The Flames look for a third straight win against a Northwest Division foe; an opponent coming off an exciting shootout win in Edmonton the night before.
For the final time in 2010, it's Flames gameday and for the guys in the Calgary room, it seems like everyone is happy to finally be playing hockey again. For as busy as this week has been, there hasn't been a whole lot of action, as the Flames haven't played since their 5-2 win over Buffalo on Monday. The team has also got three solid days of practice in which seems to be something everyone is pointing to as a positive; the Flames haven't won three straight games since October, and they enter tonight eight points back of the final playoff spot in the Western Conference.
It was an optional skate for the Flames this morning with a good contingent of guys on the ice, but no word on any lineup changes for the game. Mikael Backlund has missed four straight games as a healthy scratch and Head Coach Brent Sutter was asked about it on Tuesday, saying they felt Backlund needed some time to watch from upstairs, however it's been tough to get him back in because the team was winning. We'll see if he finds his way back in tonight.
Miikka Kiprusoff gets the start in net for the Flames which means Henrik Karlsson probably gets the start against the Oilers tomorrow. Kiprusoff wasn't really tested a whole lot against the Sabres on Monday, especially in the final 40 minutes when Calgary carried the play.
Again, because of an optional skate, we don't know the lines and pairings, but here's what we saw on Monday against the Sabres:
Alex Tanguay-Olli Jokinen-Jarome Iginla
Curtis Glencross-Brendan Morrison-Rene Bourque
Niklas Hagman-Matt Stajan-Ales Kotalik
Tom Kostopoulos-David Moss-Tim Jackman
Robyn Regehr-Jay Bouwmeester
Mark Giordano-Cory Sarich
Adam Pardy-Anton Babchuk
The Flames probably aren't going to win the speed battle against this Avalanche team, so they have to use the advantage they have in the physical game. You can force turnovers on this Colorado team, as the Oilers showed last night, so a good, physical forecheck is important for the Flames.
The Avalanche have points in two straight games, and the team is still pointing to their game against Detroit a few nights ago as their best of the season at even strength. The Avs really were all over the Red Wings at 5-on-5, yet they still ended up losing thanks to a dreadful job done on the penalty kill. Detroit scored four times on the powerplay, including the overtime winner, to take a 4-3 win.
Last night in Edmonton, the Avalanche skated circles around the Oilers in the first period and staked themselves to a 3-0 lead early on. The following 40 minutes weren't as good, as the Oilers scored three unanswered to force overtime. Matt Duchene told me this morning that it had a lot to do with how the team fell out of the flow of the game, but it's an example of how you can get this Avs team to start running around in their own end. And that was against the Oilers.
Duchene leads this team in scoring and is at the front of an impressive crop of Avalanche forwards which includes Paul Stastny, Tomas Fleischmann and an energized Milan Hejduk. But it's where the other scoring is coming from that's kind of impressive. David Jones has 12 goals up front while John-Michael Liles has had an incredibly productive season with 29 points in 37 games. Kevin Shattenkirk has played 26 games since joining the Avs active roster and has 19 points, after doing not much of anything production wise at the American League level.
This team can score, but they also let in goals, especially on the powerplay as Detroit showed a few nights ago. Colorado's PK% is 28th in the NHL at 76.6%, yet they're powerplay ranks sixth overall at 22.8%. When you hear about a team living and dying with special teams, this is the team you think about.
After a strong game in Edmonton last night, Craig Anderson is back between the pipes for the Avs. He's struggled at times this season, especially as of late. Most of the regular Avalanche observers have noted how much he's fighting the puck and how he's been prone to allowing some bad goals. Here are projected lines and pairings:
Tomas Fleischmann-Matt Duchene-Milan Hejduk
T.J. Galiardi-Paul Stastny-David Jones
Daniel Winnick-Ryan O'Reilly-Greg Mauldin
David Koci-Phillipe Dupuis-Kevin Porter
John-Michael Liles-Ryan O'Byrne
Matt Hunwick-Kevin Shattenkirk
Ryan Wilson-Adam Foote
The Avs are very happy with their in-season acquisitions of both Hunwick and O'Byrne, but this team is still lacking a true shut down d-man. O'Reilly's line will most likely be deployed all night against the Jarome Iginla unit.
How this game affects these two teams in the standings won't be drastic, as the Avs hold a ten point advantage on the Flames heading in. But, with four more games between these teams this season, it's a chance for the Flames to make some ground on a divisional opponent. That's how you could look at it, but I think it's probably best to look at it as a chance for the Flames to earn two points, because that's what they desperately need. Again, we saw a number of Western Conference teams pick up two points last night, so just keep pace and try for a third straight win.