January 11 2011 12:10PM
With more than one half of their season in the books, the Calgary Flames now set their sights on a four game road trip through the Eastern Conference, starting tonight in Carolina (5 pm, Sportsnet West and The FAN 960). Even though many believe the playoffs are out of the question for the 14th place Flames, a successful jaunt away from home might raise confidence levels a bit.
It's gameday on the road, with the Flames hooking up with the Canes for the only time this season. It's a Canes team fighting for their playoff lives, sitting ninth in the East, three points back of eighth. Calgary's position got worse during their three day break, as they've fallen nine points out of the final playoff spot in the Western Conference. While many think winning at a high rate does the team a disservice, you know the group making the trip is still focused on winning. On the surface, the four teams on the trip (with Ottawa, Toronto, and Montreal to follow) don't look to be the most intimidating However, we all remember last Monday's loss to the Islanders.
The Flames will play their first game minus Tom Kostopoulos, as he'll serve the first of six games thanks to a suspension. His hit on Detroit's Brad Stuart has caused quite the discussion on FlamesNation, and around the league. While some believe the six games is fair, there is a large contingent who believe it's far too much, including acting GM Jay Feaster, who believes there should have been no suspension. Without any set criteria, there isn't any wrong way to look at it.
Without Kostopoulos, Ales Kotalik will return to the lineup after missing Friday's game against Detroit as a healthy scratch. Kotalik was among many who could be pegged to sit in the press box, with a group of six forwards not pulling their weight on the depth chart. The good news coming from Friday was the impressive performance from Curtis Glencross, who looked like the effective player we all know he can be; it was the first time we'd seen that in more than a month. Here are projected lines and pairings tonight:
Alex Tanguay-Olli Jokinen-Jarome Iginla
Rene Bourque-Brendan Morrison-David Moss
Niklas Hagman-Matt Stajan-Curtis Glencross
Ales Kotalik-Mikael Backlund-Tim Jackman
Robyn Regehr-Jay Bouwmeester
Mark Giordano-Cory Sarich
Adam Pardy-Anton Babchuk
It'll be very interesting to see how Kotalik does on that fourth line, but on the surface, being put with Backlund and Morrison may not be the worst thing for him. He's a player who, obviously, isn't going to drive a line or make the guys around him markedly better, but Kotalik can certainly look all right when placed with capable linemates. If we're expecting that line to play between 10 and 12 minutes, they might be able to be all right. Remember, Kotalik does boast the hardest shot on the team!
Jarome Iginla is bound for the All Star Game, which curiously enough goes in Raleigh at the end of the month. Iginla is the only Flames player represented. He's the leading scorer on the team, and obviously their biggest name, so he was the obvious choice to represent Calgary.
Miikka Kiprusoff gets the start in net. I think it's fair to expect a better performance from him than on Friday, just by default.
The Carolina Hurricanes are playing a suddenly strong Southeast Division, a division boasting four teams cracking the top nine in the conference. The Canes sit number nine, five games above .500 at 20-15-6. It's a young team lead by Stanley Cup winners Eric Staal and Cam Ward and boasts some rather nice pieces for the forseeable future.
Jokinen is the teams most significant current injury, with defenceman Joni Pitkanen returning to game action on Sunday against Atlanta. The team is also missing forward Jiri Tlustly, who's also out with an upper injury. One can only assume the injury was suffered while taking birthday suit self-portraits (I think it's only fair to assume, after one public incident, this is normal behavior for the former Leaf). So, with Jokinen's return, here are projected lines and pairings tonight:
Zach Boychuk-Eric Staal-Erik Cole
Jeff Skinner-Tuomo Ruutu-Chad LaRose
Zac Dalpe-Brandon Sutter-Patrick Dwyer
Sergei Samsonov-Jussi Jokinen-Troy Bodie
Tim Gleason-Joe Corvo
Jamie McBain-Joni Pitkanen
Jay Harrison-Ian White
Photo by Gregg Forwerck/NHLI via Getty Images
Oh look, it's our old friend Ian White. The former Flames defenceman, who helped net Anton Babchuk and Tom Kostopoulos in a trade earlier this season, has just four points in his 23 games with the Canes thus far. He and Pitkanen are put in the most favorable positions when it comes to Carolina defencemen, but you'd imagine GM Jim Rutherford was hoping for a little more in terms of production from White.
Cam Ward gets the start in net, boasting strong numbers.
Who knows if the Flames really have a shot at working themselves back into the playoff mix. I don't think it'll happen, as it seems every team in front of them is winning, but if you're inside the Flames locker room, you damn well better hope that's the case. George Johnson has a good article in today's Calgary Herald about that very idea, and I believe it when the team tells us they haven't lost hope. That's a good thing in my eyes. The many who say a bad road trip will effectively spell the end of the season aren't that far off base; they're nine points out now, and if you fall much further than that, you're making it extremely difficult on yourself.