October 08 2011 12:12PM
After far too long a summer, after weeks of training camp, after six preseason games, and after a nine day break, it's finally time to start the season for the Calgary Flames. Every game matters. It's the motto for the team this year, and after missing the playoffs by just three points one year ago, it's something that rings truer than ever. To open the season, the Flames welcome the PIttsburgh Penguins (8 pm, CBC and Sportsnet 960).
We all remember how the season started one year ago for the Flames, as they fell 4-1 on the road in Edmonton, a game that sort of set the tone for the first couple months of the season. Calgary knows how vital it is to start the season in line with the rest of the Western Conference, something they didn't do last season. The Flames cannot find themselves behind the eight ball heading into 2012, because an .800, two month run just isn't realistic.
Things are the same as they have been for virtually the entire last week, as the Flames have had some heavy practice time over the last week plus. Jarome Iginla will play for the first time this season, as he missed the entire exhibition schedule recorering from a sprain in his back. How rusty will the captian be? We all know Iginla is prone to slow starts, so maybe having no preseason games will give the opposite effect.
The lines and pairings are the same as they have been all week, which are as follows:
Alex Tanguay-David Moss-Jarome Iginla
Curtis Glencross-Olli Jokinen-Lee Stempniak
Niklas Hagman-Roman Horak-Rene Bourque
Tom Kostopoulos-Matt Stajan-Tim Jackman
Mark Giordano-Scott Hannan
Jay Bouwmeester-Chris Butler
Cory Sarich-Anton Babchuk
For Horak, it's a big night, playing his first ever NHL regular season game. The coaching staff is very high on the former member of the Chilliwack Bruins, and I can see why. I know some expert pundits have criticized his lack of points in the preseason, but that's a little shortsighted in my eyes. He's a smart hockey player who puts himself in good spots and can do the job at both ends of the ice.
Brendan Morrison, Raitis Ivanans and Pierre-Luc Letourneau-Leblond all skated this morning with the main group, but will all miss the game. Morrison and Ivanans remain on injured reserve, but are cleared to play; they're just getting back up to speed prior to being activated. As for PL3, he'll serve the final game of his suspension before hopefully taking up his regular spot as a healthy scratch.
Miikka Kiprusoff gets the start in net for Calgary.
The Penguins opened their season on Thursday night with a fairly impressive 4-3 shootout win over the Vancouver Canucks. Of course Sidney Crosby didn't play that night and won't play this evening either, as his timeline for returning is 100% up in the air. He is traveling with the team, but remains on injured reserve recovering from a concussion.
The guy everyone will be watching Evgeni Malkin, who certainly looked out of sorts in his first game back in months. It'll take some time for Malkin to get back to regular form, after suffering a serious knee injury last season. Even when Malkin is healthy, he's not the same player Crosby is, we know that, but he can still dominate teams from the offensive blueline in. He'll be playing with veteran Steve Sullivan and former Dallas Starts winger James Neal tonight.
Steve Sullivan-Evgeni Malkin-James Neal
Chris Kunitz-Jordan Staal-Tyler Kennedy
Matt Cooke-Mark Letestu-Pascal Dupuis
Craig Adams-Joe Vitale-Arron Asham
Kris Letang-Derek Engelland
Paul Martin-Zbynek Michalek
Matt Niskanen-Ben Lovejoy
We're thinking Marc-Andre Fleury gets the start in net for the Penguins tonight, which would make sense. Pittsburgh makes the trip to Edmonton tomorrow night to finish off a gauntlet of tough games, seeing three home openers before having their own later this week.
This is a very well coached team that has some very good high end, and some decent depth players along the way. Martin and Michalek make up a very solid second pairing, and play some tough minutes while Cooke, Kennedy and Dupuis are strong depth forwards that can do the job asked of them consistently. The most dangerous thing about the Penguins is how regimented and patient they are, preying on the mistakes of their opponent.
Every game matters. This is a theme that needs to be taken seriously by the Flames this year, because they are in too tough a conference to have the periods of inconsistency they had one year ago, especially early in the season. With teams like the Blues and Blue Jackets improving, the competition for a top eight spot becomes even more difficult for the coming year.