The Flames head back to action this evening against the Wild, after getting a lengthy trip east out of the way and managing to do so without any casualties. Tonight, Calgary hosts a squad that is absolutely hanging on because of their powerplay and goaltending.
The Wild got slapped by the Avalanche in their last outing, and the last few games have seen the club’s weaknesses fully exposed. Minnesota’s 30 5v5 tallies are the second fewest in the league, and that performance is largely due to the fact that they generate fewer shots 5v5 than any other team in the NHL. Minnesota averages 24.3 shots/60, which is certainly a ways behind Calgary’s 30.9, and they don’t shoot a high percentage, either.
I guess that shouldn’t really be a surprise. Other than Mikko Koivu and Martin Havlat, the Wild don’t have much going on, and Koivu is having a mediocre season at EV, with only one goal and some fairly pedestrian possession numbers despite not having to face the toughs on most nights.
That duty has largely gone to John Madden and Eric Nystrom, and their regular and underlying numbers reflect the fact that Todd Richards has fed them to the wolves as a matter of course. Nyzerman is -9 with 1G/1A in 22 games and has been absolutely torched in terms of possession at EV thus far, but he’s been over his head in the role the club has given him most nights. It does make you wonder who exactly Chuck Fletcher thought he was signing this summer, because with no disrespect to Nystrom, he’s not strong enough for the icetime he’s been stuck with. He’ll be on the 4th line tonight from the sounds of things, which is about right for him.
The Wild claimed Patrick O’ Sullivan off waivers from the Hurricanes, as the Minnesota native tries to resurrect a fading career. He’s about one more bad season from heading to Switzerland or Germany to finish his time as a player, IMO, but it appears he’ll get a chance to ride shotgun for Koivu, at least for now. With Guillaume Latendresse on the shelf for an extended period and Pierre-Marc Bouchard still out due to post-concussion syndrome, Minny needs someone, anyone, to play forward, so O’ Sullivan will get his shot.
The Wild, as mentioned up top, live and die on the PP. They don’t really generate that many shots when up a man, but unlike their work 5v5, they shoot the lights out when they get an advantage. The club’s 21.7 5v4 SH% is the NHL’s best, which does make one think that if they ever come back to earth even a bit, the Wild could drop out of the race pretty quickly.
The other factor, until this week at least, that was holding things together was excellent goaltending, but Minnesota has given up 5, 6 and 7 goals in three of the last four outings, so Backstrom and Theodore’s numbers now reflect competent men at work rather than other-worldly stuff. They’re still a good tandem, though, and they’ll be the backbone of whatever success the Wild enjoy for the remainder of the season.
Tonight, it’s pretty clear that a night where the game is played almost exclusively at 5v5 would probably favour the Flames. The Wild do have a pretty decent defense corp, and guys like Havlat and Koivu always seem to bring their best against Calgary, but their forwards are generally struggling badly enough that a good 5v5 effort from the home team, like we saw against Philly or even the last game between these clubs, might well suffice.