For the first time this season, the red hot Nashville Predators come to town, as they try to continue their push up the Western Conference standings tonight against the similarly hot Calgary Flames (Sportsnet West and Sportsnet Radio FAN 960). The Flames find themselves just five points back of the Western Conference’s final playoff spot, and coming off back to back wins over division leading teams.
Saturday’s 4-3 shootout win in Vancouver certainly took on a playoff type atmosphere for one team, and with a little good fortune and some opportunistic hockey, Calgary was able to earn two points. Tonight, they take on a Predators team that plays a much different style of hockey, and it’s the start of a pretty important stretch for the Flames. Calgary plays six of their next eight games at home, and a good little stretch there could very well put them within striking distance of where they want to be.
The Flames come into tonight with points in seven of eight games, and riding those back to back wins over the weekend. Sprinkled in there is a shootout win, and as Kent pointed out on Saturday night on Overtime, getting two points in regulation has to be a priority for this team. Still, two points is two points, and Calgary earned four of a possible four coming off a 6-0 beating on Wednesday.
No lineup changes tonight, with Ales Kotalik sitting out his second straight game as a healthy scratch. Do you think it’s a coincidence the Flames seem to play some pretty good hockey when he’s not in the lineup? Must be a coincidence. Overall, he’s been a very ineffective player…except in the shootout, but Calgary won without him on Saturday. 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
I liked the Jokinen line on Saturday, but more for the linemates than for the centre. I felt Bourque had his best game in ages, actually affecting the play in a positive manner and using his attributes in an effective manner. Moss continues to play some strong, strong hockey and he’s did it against some fairly strong Vancouver opposition. You either trade the guy and get assets for him, or you sign him to a new deal next season, you can’t let Moss walk.
Miikka Kiprusoff gets the start in net after a strong performance Saturday against the Canucks. I thought it was his best game in a while, and I really liked how he got into the game as the night went along. By the third period and overtime, he was out challenging shooters and letting the puck hit him in the crest.
After a 3-2 shootout win Sunday night in Edmonton, the Predators enter with wins in ten of their last 12 games and riding a three game win streak overall. They’ve moved into fourth spot in the Western Conference and within just four points of the Central Division leading Detroit Red Wings, and they’ve done it by playing sound defensive hockey (like that’s a surprise).
Nashville’s 114 goals against is second best in the NHL, and it comes on the back of a couple of really good defencemen and some fairly good performances from their goaltenders. Pekka Rinne, who picked up the win in Edmonton, is the number one, and with numbers to back it up…he’ll start tonight. His .929 save percentage puts him second overall, and with a goals against just over two, you can tell that his team plays well in front of him, but he puts in some pretty quality minutes. Anders Lindback (seriously, where does Nashville find these guys?) has turned in a 10-4-2 record as a backup, and a pretty respectable .915 save percentage in that time.
Defensively, and right now offensively, the Predators are lead by a couple of extremely important defencemen in Shea Weber and Ryan Suter. Weber is their leading scorer with 29 points in 48 games, and Ryan Suter would be right there with him had he not missed 11 games with an injury suffered in Nashville’s first meeting with Calgary back in October. Both guys start in the offensive zone well under 50% of the time, and as they play a lot of ES time together, they do extremely impressive work affecting the play going north. There’s no question the Preds rely heavily on Weber and Suter, but have also got some solid contributions from Cody Franson and yep, even Shane O’Brien from time to time. The Preds blueline is without Francis Bouillon who’s now missed three games with an upper body injury.
Up front, it’s pretty impressive how the Preds are winning and scoring, even with the rash of injuries they’ve suffered all year long. Cal O’Reilly, a somewhat significant player himself, is out indefinetely with a broken fibula suffered at the beginning of 2011, another long term injury that saw him join Steve Sullivan (lower body) and Matthew Lombardi (concussion) on the shelf. Add in a lower body injury to Marek Svatos and an undisclosed substance abuse issue with Jordin Tootoo, and this Preds team is without a number of regular forwards.
Nonetheless, they’ve got some pretty significant contributions. David Legwand’s line, and Legwand especially, sees a lot of defensive responsiblity, and the former second overall pick has turned himself into a pretty useful player in that regard. But it’s the first line that actually baffles you a little, with Marcel Goc, Martin Erat and…Sergei Kostitsyn? giving you fairly solid minutes at even strength. Goc and Erat aren’t that much of a surprise really, but Kostitsyn seems to actually be holding his own out there, with a 44.9% offensive zone start number. He’s not Henrik Zetterberg…but he’s also not Eric Nystrom. Here are lines and parings for 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
One thing that obviously goes into every Nashville team that has success is Head Coach Barry Trotz, who continues to do good things with his team. They play a very committed brand of hockey, and Trotz is a huge reason why.
The Flames are the closest to the playoff picture they’ve been in ages, and they’re back above .500 for the first time since late October. That’s something, and the team is feeling good. What impresses me is the fact they made that 6-0 loss turn into just another loss. Now they’ve got a Nashville team who is patient and who will pounce on any chance they’re given. Should be a pretty close to the vest affair tonight.