February 01 2011 12:01PM
The Calgary Flames open their post All Star break schedule tonight when they take on the Nashville Predators for the third time this season (Sportsnet West and Sportsnet Radio FAN 960). Not much changes for the Flames, who look for a fifth straight win and potentially move into a tie for the eighth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference. The Flames have been on quite the roll and they've yet to lose to the Preds this season.
The All Star break was just a break for the Flames, with nobody traveling to Raleigh for the annual festivities. The big question posed to the team prior to the break was whether the five day hiatus would stall momentum for Calgary, or whether it would put them in a better spot for the remaining 51 games of the season. The most impressive part of this current Flames win streak is how they've won their four games. They've done it in different ways, and they've been full marks on every night.
Nothing changes for Calgary, and really, why should it? They've been playing their best hockey of the season, with a solid 10-3-3 run over their last 16 games. The team points to their December 23rd win in Dallas the turning point, which is a little easier to believe more than a month after the fact. They were a season-worst four games below .500 heading in, and put forth one of their most solid efforts of the season, only to find themselves trailing 2-1 late in the game. Alex Tanguay's equalizer and Calgary's subsequent win has seemingly sparked some much better hockey, and they finished the month of January 7-3-2.
Over the last week, the Flames have cleared two roster spots with both Craig Conroy and Ales Kotalik clearing waivers. Conroy will either play in Abbotsford or retire, while Kotalik will report on Wednesday when the Heat resume their schedule after the AHL All Star Game. Give Flames ownership credit, as they're willing to bury a fat contract in the minors for a good balance of the season here, and they may be prepared to do it again next season, if Kotalik decides to stay with the organization. Acting GM Jay Feaster said assigning Kotalik was as much to give younger players with the Heat a shot on the big club, but it sounds like no callups will be made prior to this game in Nashville.
Up front, Calgary has been scoring, with 18 goals during this four game streak. It's been coming from all over, with David Moss, Tim Jackman, Brendan Morrison, Alex Tanguay and Jarome Iginla among others all getting involved. That's going to need to be the norm for this team going forward for them to achieve their ultimate goal, and forward depth has always been one of their strengths. Here are lines and pairings for tonight:
Alex Tanguay-Brendan Morrison-Jarome Iginla
Rene Bourque-Olli Jokinen-David Moss
Niklas Hagman-Matt Stajan-Curtis Glencross
Tom Kostopoulos-Mikael Backlund-Tim Jackman
Robyn Regehr-Jay Bouwmeester
Mark Giordano-Cory Sarich
Adam Pardy-Anton Babchuk
My guess would be Brendan Mikkelson would be put on waivers with the purpose of assigning him at some point, which would mean three free roster spots after Conroy and Kotalik. One would go to Steve Staios if and when he's activated from LTIR, and it would still give you two if a trade was considered, or if adding players from Abbotsford was in the cards.
Miikka Kiprusoff gets the start in net, his third start of the season against the Predators. He blanked them early in the season as Rene Bourque's overtime winner was the only goal in a 1-0 win before putting in a strong performance in Calgary's 3-1 win at home last Monday. He seems to have put the rough patch he endured behind him, putting in some solid word prior to the break.
The story in Nashville hasn't changed since the Flames last played them eight days ago. They're an injured bunch minus a number of their key forwards, and aren't really a team that is going to blow you away with their offensive depth. Strong team play, a solid blueline with a pair of truly elite players and outstanding goaltending have been the keys to Nashville's strong season. Entering play tonight, they sit fourth in the West with 60 points.
The forward ranks continue to be ravaged by injuries with Steve Sullivan (lower body), Cal O'Reilly (leg), Matthew Lombardi (concussion), and Marek Svatos (lower body) have all missed lengthy periods of time. It's forced Head Coach Barry Trotz to break up the solid shutdown forward pair of David Legwand and Joel Ward, spreading out some of the defensive responsibility. J.P. Dumont missed Monday's game against Calgary with a neck injury but returned to play Vancouver prior to the break. Here are lines and pairings tonight:
Sergei Kostitsyn-Marcel Goc-Martin Erat
Colin Wilson-David Legwand-Patric Hornqvist
Nick Spaling-Jerred Smithson-Joel Ward
J.P. Dumont-Chris Mueller-Matt Halischuk
Shea Weber-Ryan Suter
Shane O'Brien-Cody Franson
Alexander Sulzer-Kevin Klein
The team is still without Francis Bouillon on the blueline, as he's missed five games with an upper body injury. He's an important player on the back end, as he's a good stabilizing force who puts in good second pairing minutes. That being said, the team still runs through those top two blueliners, who run things when they're on the ice more often than not.
Pekka Rinne gets the start in net, still looking for his first career win against the Flames.
A couple interesting things strike me with Nashville's special teams. First, they're third ranked penalty kill continues to do good things, even with allowing two goals to Calgary. But what's more impressive about their PK is the turnaround from last season, where they were 28th in the NHL. However, the Preds powerplay isn't very good, and they're lack of anything of substance was on display in their last game against the Flames. They rank 28th in the NHL, even with the two big guns on the points.
It's another huge game for the Flames, as they play another team in the muddied Western Conference playoff picture. Nashville may sit fourth, but their 60 points is only nine up on 14th and six up on Calgary in 12th. Of Calgary's remaining 31 games, 20 of them are against teams they're either directly chasing or directly in front of. In a lot of ways, the month of January for the Flames got them into a position to control their own fate. They've won their last five games at whatever Nashville's arena is called (right now the Bridgestone Arena), so making it six tonight would be something pretty darn important.