The first time Calgary played Columbus this year, it ended in a 4-1 win for the Jackets in one of the Flames least inspired performances of the year. Tonight, Calgary looks for their first three game winning streak of the season when they take on the Blue Jackets at the Saddledome (7 pm, Sportsnet Flames and Sportsnet 960). It’s Calgary first of 16 games in the month of December, the busiest single month I can ever remember them playing.
Even during the 2010 Olympic year, Calgary didn’t play 16 games in one single month, so seeing that happen in a regular year is even more astounding. To say the final month of 2011 is a "make it or break it" month really isn’t underselling it, especially on the break it side. The Flames won’t be able to get where they want to go solely on this coming stretch, but a good December can set them up nicely. Conversely, a mediocre 12th month really can sink their season for good.
The Flames will be without Mark Giordano tonight after sustaining a hamstring injury Tuesday in Calgary’s win over Nashville. He went down in the first period and put a lot more responsibility onto the shoulders of guys like Derek Smith and T.J. Brodie, who both did the job in solid fashion. Cory Sarich will slot back into the lineup tonight after missing the last four games as a healthy scratch.
Curtis Glencross-Olli Jokinen-Jarome Iginla
Alex Tanguay-Roman Horak-Rene Bourque
Blake Comeau-Mikael Backlund-Lee Stempniak
Tom Kostopoulos-Matt Stajan-Tim Jackman
Jay Bouwmeester-Chris Butler
T.J. Brodie-Derek Smith
Derek Smith-Cory Sarich
The lines are the same from the last couple of wins for the Flames, and really, there’s no reason to change things up. Most of the Flames lines have carried their weight the last few contests, as Tanguay’s line stepped up their play in Tuesday’s win over Nashville. The Jokinen trio was Calgary’s best on that night, and really needs to keep that going.
The Flames have assigned Pierre-Luc Letourneau-Leblond to the American Hockey League, a move that comes kinda late for a lot of fans who have wondered why he’s been on the main roster at all. With his assignment to Abbotsford and Giordano’s IR placement, Calgary now has two roster spots open for recalls. I’d imagine we’ll see something prior to the back-to-back Saturday/Sunday set the Flames play in Edmonton and Vancouver. Paul Byron and Joe Piskula have been the names thrown around most frequently.
Miikka Kiprusoff starts in net.
Even though they’ve been playing better hockey as of late, the Blue Jackets are still 15th place for a reason. One large reason is the fact they’ve won just a single time in 11 tries on the road, sitting with an ugly 1-8-2 record so far this season. There have been myriad issues with this team as of late, but over the last month, they have been a whole lot closer with teams, even if the results haven’t necessarily been there.
The underlying numbers for the Jackets are actually a little closer to respectable when compared to Calgary’s last two opponents, yet both Nashville and Minnesota find themselves significantly higher in the standings than Columbus. This hasn’t been a team that has been crushed in terms of possession, as they rank in the top ten in both shots for and against. But they’ve been prone to some really awful stretches of poor decision making while also being victimized by shoddy goaltending, leading to their league worst 79 goals against.
Steve Mason just hasn’t been a good goaltender at all, even if he hasn’t been the only reason for the mass struggles in Columbus. His save percentage sits below .900 in every category, which just isn’t acceptable, regardless of the team playing in front of you. Instead, it’s been Curtis Sanford getting the bulk of the minutes as of late, and he’ll get the start in net tonight sitting with a 3-2-2 record.
Vaclav Prospal-Jeff Carter-Rick Nash
R.J. Umberger-Mark Letestu-Ryan Johansen
Antoine Vermette-Sammy Pahlsson-Derek Dorsett
Derick Brassard-Derek MacKenzie-Jared Boll
Fedor Tyutin-Nikita Nikitin
Marc Methot-James Wisniewski
John Moore-Grant Clitsome
Prospal leads the team in scoring with Nash right behind, although the latter hasn’t been overly impressive for much of this season. The real disappointment has come with the production of Jeff Carter, even though he did have to battle through an injury earlier in the year. The third line is the one routinely buried by Head Coach Scott Arniel, with all three players way down in terms of offensive zone starts, specifically Pahlsson and Dorsett.
There’s not a more fun name to say in the NHL than Nikita Nikitin, and he’s been fairly solid for the Jackets since coming over in a trade with St. Louis. He and Tyutin have formed the most effective pairing for Columbus thus far and will see some tough minutes against the Flames tonight.
So much of watching the Flames as of late is ignoring what the opponent is doing, at least for me. Calgary isn’t going to win hockey games unless they’re playing a very specific type of hockey, and when they do that, they give themselves a chance to win. Sometimes they’ll lose, especially to the upper echelon teams in this league. However, sometimes they’ll win and if they play the same way they have the last pair of games, they’ll probably win a third straight for the first time this season.