FGD: Four!

Both the Minnesota Wild and Calgary Flames are riding season-high four game winless streaks heading into action tonight as the two teams meet for the third time this season (7 pm, Sportsnet West and Sportsnet 960).  The Flames lost all four games on their road trip and now start a three game, pre-Christmas stretch against opponents with impressive point totals.  Funny enough, even though the Wild have the most points of that trio, they may be the most beatable opponent.

Calgary might also catch a break, as Minnesota enters action tonight coming off a 4-0 loss in Vancouver on Monday night.  Both the Flames and Wild have 0-2-2 marks over their four game losing skid, which is about the only thing identical about these two squads.  One is far exceeding expectations under a first time NHL coach while the other continues to frustrate.  The good news?  The Flames took an impressive win over the Wild in late November, starting their current 6-3-3 stretch.

The Lineup

With four straight losses and two regular players out of the lineup, the Flames have shaken things up a tad for tonight, reuniting Jarome Iginla and Alex Tanguay on the top line.  They’ll skate on either side of Mikael Backlund who will go from the doghouse on Friday night to the penthouse tonight.  Even if the Flames could play with Matt Stajan and Rene Bourque, I’m guessing the lines would have shifted a tad.

Alex Tanguay-Mikael Backlund-Jarome Iginla
Curtis Glencross-Olli Jokinen-Lee Stempniak
Blake Comeau-Roman Horak-Paul Byron
Tom Kostopoulos-Brendan Morrison-Tim Jackman

Jay Bouwmeester-Chris Butler
Derek Smith-Scott Hannan
T.J. Brodie-Cory Sarich

Bourque won’t play thanks to a two game suspension received Sunday night against the Blackhawks.  It’s drawn criticism around the league, and while Head Coach Brent Sutter said "it is what it is" Jay Feaster had a different tone.  "While we respectfully disagree with the League’s interpretation of the hit, we nonetheless recognize that Brendan Shanahan has issued his ruling and both the Flames and Rene Bourque will abide by his decision.  Our sole focus is on preparing for tonight’s game, while Rene will spent the next few days getting ready to step back into the lineup on Friday night in Vancouver in another important Northwest Division contest.  We will have no further comment on the League’s decision to suspend Rene Bourque."

Matt Stajan won’t play tonight after suffering an ankle sprain on Sunday; he’ll be replaced by Byron who returns to the lineup for his second stint with the team this year.  David Moss did not skate this morning, and it’s thought he might have taken a step back in his recovery from a lower body injury.  Anton Babchuk skated with the team for the first time since suffering a broken hand.

Miikka Kiprusoff gets the start in net.

The Opponent

So why do I say the Wild are likely the most beatable of Calgary’s next three opponents?  While, first give credit to the Red Wings and Canucks, who are both playing stupid good hockey right now.  Detroit has wins in 12 of their last 15 games while Vancouver is on the same pace, taking two points in 11 of 14.  While those two teams have done their dirty work using deep lineups and heavy hitting top end players, the Wild have done it thanks to goaltending…and not much else.

Niklas Backstrom, who picked up the loss last night, has stopped more than 94% of his shots at even strength, which continues to border on stupid.  His capable backup Josh Harding is going at a .935 pace at even strength, slightly less ridiculous yet still very impressive nonetheless.  The Wild are routinely outshot, allowing the second worst totals in both shots for (26.2 per game) and shots against (32.1 per game).  It sounds like Josh Harding will start tonight.

As such, you’ll see a grand total of zero regular players on this team with an offensive zone start over 50% which then understandably leads to Corsi totals that don’t necessarily flatter.  In fact, just one regular player is in the black by this metric, as Pierre-Marc Bouchard is just barely treading water with a 44.2% OZS.  Suffice to say, most shifts start in the Minnesota end, and the ones that don’t tend to finish there regardless.

Pierre-Marc Bouchard-Matt Cullen-Dany Heatley
Cal Clutterbuck-Mikko Koivu-Nick Johnson
Darroll Powe-Kyle Brodziak-Colton Gillies
Jed Ortmeyer-Warren Peters-Jarod Palmer

Marco Scandella-Jared Spurgeon
Nick Schultz-Mike Lundin
Clayton Stoner-Marek Zidlicky

That’s just a guess on the Wild lines, going a little bit on what we saw last night in Vancouver and a little bit on a speculated return for Mikko Koivu.  The Minnesota leading scorer has missed a pair of games with a leg injury but is likely to return tonight, and with his 28 points sorely missed, they’ll obviously welcome him back.  This Wild team is already without Devin Setoguchi (knee) and Guillaume Latendresse (concussion) seemingly long term, so Koivu’s return couldn’t come at a better time.

If Koivu can’t go, expect Head Coach Mike Yeo to go with either enforcer Brad Staubitz or newcomer Chad Rau, a Minnesota native from Eden Prairie.  Greg Zanon is also a possibility to get back into the lineup, so we’ll see if the veteran blueliner sees some time or not.  When it’s all said and done, those 18 skaters barely make up an NHL roster…yet they’re 11 games over .500.

The Story

Look, there is a lot of room between Calgary and Minnesota in the Northwest Division standings, I get that.  But the Flames gameplan back on November 27th en route to their five goal performance at the Xcel Energy Center is precisely the way they have to play against any opponent, and this one especially.  If Calgary is aggressive on the forecheck and works the cycle like they have the ability to, they’ll likely win even if the goaltending is at the "very good" level.  Unfortunately for opponents, it’s been at the "incredible" level far too often this season.

  • RKD

    Brent must be listening to KW as he is breaking up Iggy and Joker. Probably had to because of the injury and suspension.

    Hope the Flames can take advantage of a banged up Minny squad but they will come out hard with the loss to Vcr. last night.

    • Im guessing he didn’t need the stats to realize that stuff wasn’t working at ES. Coaches tend to mix things up after losing streaks as a habit anyways.

      I like the new configuration, assuming it’s the Jokinen/Glencross/Stempers line getting some tougher minutes.

  • RexLibris

    Hey Pat, I think you meant to say both teams are on season high 4 game losing streaks. I think this is the one game out of the next 3 the boys could come up big with a win. But who knows, 1st game back from a road trip doesnt usually bring the best out of our guys.

  • Vintage Flame

    Can’t be giving up a ton of chances tonight, especially to the likes of Clutterbuck and Brodziak, it just can’t happen.

    So glad to see Backlund up with Iggy and Tanguay, whether that line stays together for the duration of the game remains to be seen, but they better show something early. I’m hoping we see more offensive zone starts for the trio as we all know what happens when the line starts south.. they go south.

  • redricardo

    Yeah, the only way Sutter is listening to Wilson is if he starts sheltering Iggy against some of the lightweights on the other team.

    It must be fun for him to consistently put out Iginla against the other teams top lines, watch him get his brains beat in, and then go to the post game scrum and tell everyone that the top players need to play better defensively.

    Definition of insanity Coach… try something new!

  • OilFan

    I’m wondering ….. oh yeah How good is this Backlund kid ? Comparables please. I read a lot of comments on the Flames nation regarding your younger prospects are any of the top end talent or more depth players ?

    Thanks in advance guys

    • Vintage Flame

      Robert Vollman did a comparable on Backlund a while ago. Here’s what he had to say.

      Backlund has essentially enjoyed identical back-to-back 25 point seasons, while playing just 12 minutes a game of mostly sheltered ice-time. Using that, we can search NHL’s history for all 21-year-olds who are within a goal and an assist of his 2010-11 season, and see what happened to them.

      Now VUKOTA projects 13 goals, 18 assists and 31 points in 65 games, but the 30 matches we found with Snepsts averaged 15 goals and 19 assists for 34 points over an 82 game schedule – though we’re sure Backlund is bound to miss at least 5-10 games.

      The high-water mark is Cam Neely’s 55 points in 75 games, and Mario Tremblay’s 47 points in 76 games. At the lower end are players like Kris Beech, Jamie Lundmark, Jody Hull and Martin Gelinas, all of whom finished in the sub-20 point range.

      A lot will depend on his opportunities this year. If Backlund gets top-line minutes with Jarome Iginla and Alex Tanguay he’s practically guaranteed to top 30 points and even threaten to drive up into this upper-40 high-water mark. Worst-case scenario is that he’s buried on the depth lines for another year and finished in the mid-20s again.

      I also did a piece on Backs at the start of the year, which if you want you can find here.

  • Jeff Lebowski

    This game has all the ingredients for a display of ugly, boring hockey. I hope it turns out to be the opposite.
    The league should mandate a high entertainment value or both teams don’t get Christmas parties.

  • Jeff Lebowski

    Wild vs Flames game are always fun… boring, low scoring, not much action in the offensive zones, that’s fun, eh? I hope the Flames come out with a strong effort tonight, because although Minnesota is 2nd in the league, they are very beatable. If their goaltender sucks or plays even somewhat bad, they are screwed.

    GAME DAY PREDICTION: 1G and 1A for Mikael Backlund. He’s due for a bit of a breakout and tonight’s the night.