For the first time this season, the Calgary Flames entertain their Northwest Division rivals in the Minnesota Wild, as Calgary returns home for a game before heading back out on the road for another pair of games (7:30 pm, Sportsnet Flames and Sportsnet 960). Calgary plays nine of their 14 games this month on the road, as they try to get up above .500 for the first time this season.
There is a glass half full and glass half empty approach when looking at the last little while for the Flames. On the negative side, it’s accurate to point out the team’s inability to get above even so far this season, a mark they can’t be hovering around for too much longer. On a more positive note, Calgary has won four of their last six games and took two of three on their most recent road trip. It all depends what mood you’re in this morning, I guess.
It was an optional skate again this morning for the Flames, as that’s been the routine for the last couple games. Mikael Backlund was on the ice practicing with the main group for the second straight day, as he’s been cleared for contact and to play. The injured centre remains on IR for the time being and won’t play tonight, but might be good to return to the lineup in either Chicago or Denver over the weekend.
David Moss and Curtis Glencross were both back on the ice after missing practice yesterday, and there’s a fairly good chance both play tonight. Glencross is good to go, as yesterday was just a maintenance day while Moss said he’s feeling good and hopes to get back in after missing Calgary’s win Sunday in Denver. David blocked a shot against the Sabres which is why he had to sit out a game; he’s officially a gametime decision. If both play tonight, it looks as if Brendan Morrison and Pierre-Luc Letourneau-Leblond will sit. Because nothing is ever for sure at a morning skate, here are projected (only projected) lines:
Curtis Glencross-Olli Jokinen-Jarome Iginla
Alex Tanguay-Roman Horak-Lee Stempniak
Niklas Hagman-Matt Stajan-Rene Bourque
Tom Kostopoulos-David Moss-Tim Jackman
Jay Bouwmeester-Chris Butler
Mark Giordano-Scott Hannan
Derek Smith-Anton Babchuk
Looks like Cory Sarich sits out once again after missing the Avalanche game as well. Babchuk has been just fine in his last couple outings, as he’s finally taking it upon himself to be a true offensive threat. When he’s doing that, at least there’s real value in having him in the lineup, as opposed to us scratching our head as to what he’s doing out there.
Miikka Kiprusoff gets the start in net, after another strong outing Sunday; his .936 even strength save percentage puts him right up there among the best goalies in the NHL to start the season.
Ahh the Minnesota Wild. Off to a 7-3-3 start, this team underwent some significant changes during the offseason, trading away two established members of the team in seperate blockbuster deals. The Wild first sent Brent Burns to San Jose at the Draft in their home building, getting Devin Setoguchi back in return along with a prospect and a first round pick. Later in the offseason, it was Martin Havlat finding his way to San Jose with Dany Heatley going back the other way. Both new additions have helped the Wild to their good start, tied for the team lead with eight points.
Guillaume Latendresse-Mikko Koivu-Dany Heatley
Devin Setoguchi-Matt Cullen-Pierre-Marc Bouchard
Cal Clutterbuck-Kyle Brodziak-Nick Johnson
Colton Gillies-Darroll Powe-Brad Staubitz
Nick Schultz-Marek Zidlicky
Marco Scandella-Jared Spurgeon
Justin Falk-Nate Prosser
I will say the Wild are a little deeper up front than I can remember, with two decent scoring lines and a very effective third unit. Brodziak’s group (specifically he and Clutterbuck) has been buried by new Head Coach Mike Yeo and they haven’t been hammered in the process. The scoring is very balanced currently, with five of the top six scorers tied for the team lead with eight points and Latendresse lagging just a point behind.
As for that blueline, well, you can see for yourself. After the first pairing, things drop off substantially as Minnesota is without two of their top six in Clayton Stoner (finger) and Greg Zanon (groin). While Zanon doesn’t seem close to returning anytime soon, Stoner may be able to return to the lineup for this one tonight. Mike Lundin is also out of the lineup with back spasms.
Riding a four game winning streak heading in, Minnesota can attribute much of their early season success to goaltending. The NHL’s first star of the week is Josh Harding, who has put up rather, um, unsustainable totals thus far in his five appearances. A .965 save percentage (overall and even strength) isn’t a number that any human goaltender can keep up for an extended period of time, but to say he’s in a groove would be an understatement. Harding is also up at .963 when the Wild are shorthanded, so, yeah, expect those numbers to come down. Niklas Backstrom, by the way, has been right around his high end self, with a .934 ES save percentage; he’ll get the start in net tonight.
It’s another divisional opponent, and another team the Flames are going to have to fight with for a top eight position in the Western Conference. Calgary had so little success against this team last year, a very mediocre team at that, and it played a large part in the Flames missing the postseason for a second straight season. Plus, getting above .500 might be nice to see!