March 20 2011 01:48PM
With the Anaheim Ducks and Calgary Flames meeting tonight at the Honda Center, everyone is aware of the stakes and the situation. The Flames and Ducks are tied for ninth in the Western Conference, and they play for the third time this season. With just nine games remaining for Calgary, the two remaining Anaheim games become massively important, starting tonight (6 pm, Sportsnet West and Sportsnet Radio FAN 960).
Other than a Dallas loss in a shootout, the Flames got zero help out of town last night. On the bright side, the Ducks did play yesterday, taking an overtime win over the Kings, so maybe that'll lead to some fatigue or something. This is the furthest Calgary has fallen back in a while in the standings, and kicking off a crucial California road trip on a winning note would be of huge importance.
Nothing changes for the Flames coming off their 5-2 win over the Colorado Avalanche on Thursday night. Head Coach Brent Sutter will keep the line combinations he used then in tact, and he'll go with Miikka Kiprusoff in net on the first half of a back-to-back. I'd be shocked if Henrik Karlsson got in against the Kings tomorrow, just because of the lack of travel and the the margin between opponents the next three games.
In terms of lines, I haven't minded the move of Mikael Backlund to the top line so far, but tonight is the first massive test for the young center in an elevated role. With the team on the road, Backlund will probably draw one of the top two lines for the Ducks, and I'll be very intrigued how he handles the responsibility. He's been a pretty good player lately for the team, and he's done a pretty good job of getting the puck ot the important areas of the ice. Here are lines and pairings:
Curtis Glencross-Mikael Backlund-Jarome Iginla
Alex Tanguay-Olli Jokinen-Rene Bourque
Niklas Hagman-Matt Stajan-Ales Kotalik
Tom Kostopoulos-Lance Bouma-Tim Jackman
Robyn Regehr-Jay Bouwmeester
Mark Giordano-Cory Sarich
Anton Babchuk-Steve Staios
The splitting up of Iginla and Tanguay at even strength is interesting, and kind of similar to what coaches of the San jose Sharks have done, specifically with Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau. You know you can bring them back together if you need to, but getting them away from eachother and still playing them on the powerplay isn't a terrible idea.
One note...Daymond Langkow is on the trip for the Flames, and he'll be skating on his own with Craig Conroy. The team is trying to accelerate the recovery of the important forward, but when he returns is anyboday's guess. I'd say long odds he's back this season...but playoffs? I'd say likely.
The Ducks enter coming off a huge overtime win against the LA Kings, and thanks to a Corey Perry winner, Anaheim climbed their way up to ninth in the conference, pushing Calgary to ten just because of wins, games in hand, etc. This Ducks team is a curious one, because if you take a look at the high amount of offesnive zone time and shots they give up, you'd think the largest factor in their wins was goaltending. And it was...
Jonas Hiller was truly a Vezina Trophy contender, but hasn't been able to pracitce on a regular basis or play because of what the Ducks are calling "vertigo like symptoms". That's not good, because Hiller is the most important player on that team...yet, Dan Ellis and Ray Emery have stepped in more than admirably and done the job. Roger Millions of Sportsnet is reporting, from Cali, that Emery is likely to start after picking up the win agianst the Kings yesterday.
This is a very top heavy team, which is why containing the top six forwards continues to be the largest task when taking on Anaheim. The top line can crush opponents, regardless of where they start their shift, as Head Coach Randy Carlyle isn't afraid to dispatch Getzlaf and Perry for tough defensive zone draws. The same is true, to an even larger extent, with the second line, yet they still do a decent job with possession. The problem with Anaheim is Carlyle can't really have confidence in his bottom six forwards to be out in defensive draws against anyone of note, which is the shot rate of the top six is a little low. Here are lines and pairings for the Ducks tonight:
Bobby Ryan-Ryan Getzlaf-Corey Perry
Jason Blake-Saku Koivu-Teemu Selanne
Brad Winchester-Brandon McMillan-Dan Sexton
Jarkko Ruutu-Todd Marchant-George Parros
Lubomir Visnovsky-Toni Lydman
Francois Beauchemin-Luca Sbisa
Cam Fowler-Andy Sutton
Last time the Flames played the Ducks, I said this, and I'll say it again: Visnovsky is one of the NHL's top defencemen this year, not just in points, but in overall play. This guy has been out of his skull this season, and his pairing with Lydman has been Anaheim's best all season. Bringing Beauchemin from Toronto has been huge, taking some of the pressure of the top two, but Carlyle trusts Visnovsky and Lydman, and you'll see that tonight.
The swing will be a dramatic one tonight, with whoever wins, but don't forget...these teams play for the final time this season at the end of the month, which could cancel out how dramatic this shift is. For the Flames, it's very clear...the Stajan line has to go to work on the lesser lights on the Ducks. If they do that, Calgary can have some success tonight.