After defeating the Flames 3-1 and 4-1 in their back-to-back series in December, The Wild managed to go on a bit of run and reel off six wins in their next nine games. That charge propelled them up the Western Conferene strandings somewhat, where they now sit in 9th with 51 points after downing the Oilers last night.
Minnesota was in 13th place before their home-and-home series with Calgary in December. Their modest run demonstrates what a truly difficult position the Flames are in: despite going 5-2-3 in their last 10 games and gathering 6 of a possible 8 points on the road, Calgary remains in 14th – currently 8 points out of the playoff picture. The issue with trying to climb over 5 other teams in the standings is that if any one of them matches the Flames success, Calgary will inevitably fall short. So it’s not just enough for the Flames so play .650 hockey the rest of the way…they also have to hoep that none of their immediate rivals (ranging from the Wild to the San Jose Sharks) plays at a similar pace.
As for the Wild, they remain a relatively flawed team. In his recent preview of the Wild/Oiler match, Derek Zona notes how Todd Richards strategy of feeding Miiko Koivu easier minutes has caused the rest of the Minnesota ship to sink a little. As much as that doesn’t seem to be a sound way to win overall, Richards penchant for finding soft spots to play Koivu sure worked against Calgary in the last two contests. Particular in the one at the Dome, which I was fortunate (?) enough to attend. Despite not having last change, Richards was ultra aggressive in his bench management, frequently testing the limits of Sutter’s willingness to match lines and finding ways to send Koivu out against the Flames lesser forwards and third pairing defenders. Sutter, on the other hand, fed all the offensive zone draws to Calgary’s 4th line of Moss, Jackman and Kostopolous. To be fair, they looked like the only trio worth a damn that night. On the other hand, it makes a lot more sense to me to try to give your big guns the high ground against an opponent with lackluster depth in your own building. But that’s just me.
Tonight, the Flames are likely to face NIklas Backstrom, since Khudobin was the guy in net versus the Oil last night. Backstrom is having himself a bounce back season after falling on hard times in his first year sans Lemaire in 2009-10. His .919 SV% is floated by a .935 save rate at even strength, which is one of the better numbers in the league currently. Good news for Minny since they inked the 32-year old to a 4 year, $6M per year contract back in 2009. As Flames fans are findind out this season, paying a guy a lot of dough to stop pucks at a below average rate is less than ideal.
The rest of the team remains what it is: hopelessly top heavy behind Koivu and Havlat and reliant on special teams to deliver the wins. They are kind of the reverse Flames, I guess, considering Calgary’s so-so top-end up front, solid depth and impotent special teams. Victory therefore lies in staying out of the box and outplaying Koivu/Havlat.