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.
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.
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.
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.