You can always tell spring is upon us when the race for the playoffs heats up like it has over the last few weeks, and a couple teams right in the thick of it play tonight at the Scotiabank Saddledome. Coming off a 4-2 loss Thursday in Edmonton, the pesky Columbus Blue Jackets pay a March visit to Calgary for their fourth and final meeting with the Flames.
It’s a huge game for both squads, with Columbus holding three games in hand heading in and with an opportunity to move within striking distance. Three games in hand with a six or eight point deficit means a whole lot less than three games in hand with just four points to make up. For Calgary, they’ve dropped to eighth in the Western Conference, thanks to out of town wins by Los Angeles and Nashville last night, so the stakes aren’t any lower for the Flames.
The Flames will deal with their first significant injury in a while, as they’ll play without Brendan Morrison. He’ll miss the game after suffering a knee injury against Chicago on Wednesday, a knee injury that didn’t look good when watching on TV. It’s a huge loss for Calgary’s top line, which was putting up points on a fairly consistent basis, and let’s not forget how pleasant a surprise Morrison has been.
With Morrison out, the top line gets a bit of a face lift, and the rest of the combinations get jumbled as a result. Head Coach Brent Sutter hasn’t decided if the lines we saw at morning skate will stick to tonight, but if they do, Freddy Modin will make his Flames debut on the fourth line. Sutter said he’s still deciding if the team will go with the traditional 12 forwards and six defencemen, or go forward with 11 up front and seven on the back end. Here were lines and pairings at skate this morning:
Rene Bourque-Alex Tanguay-Jarome Iginla
Curtis Glencross-Olli Jokinen-David Moss
Niklas Hagman-Matt Stajan-Tim Jackman
Tom Kostopoulos-Mikael Backlund-Freddy Modin
Robyn Regehr-Jay Bouwmeester
Mark Giordano-Cory Sarich
Anton Babchuk-Steve Staios
Tanguay talked this morning about the differences between playing the wing and moving to center, if that’s indeed where he spends most of his time tonight. Tanguay hasn’t played a lot of center in his NHL career, seeing a little time in Colorado, but with Joe Sakic and Peter Forsberg already on the team, he wasn’t going to play a lot down the middle. The last time he saw regular time at center was in junior.
No surprise as to who starts in net…Miikka Kiprusoff goes for the 19th consecutive time.
The Blue Jackets missed a grand opportunity last night, falling in Edmonton in a game they really needed to have. They enter 12th in the West, six back of Calgary with the aforementioned three less games played. While it’s true they have played better of late, they’re still a team that can’t afford to throw away games against last place opponents, something they did in the provincial capital.
Columbus made a somewhat significant move on deadline day, acquiring Scottie Upshall and Sami Lepisto from the Phoenix Coyotes in exchange for blueline mainstay Rostislav Klesla. Upshall was immediately slotted on the Jackets third line with Sammy Pahlsson and Derek Dorsett, a line Head Coach Scott Arniel loves to throw out for a ton of defensive zone faceoffs. Pahlsson has an offensive zone start hovering around 35%, while Dorsett’s is only slightly higher at just over 43%.
The Jackets are the definition of a middle-of-the-road hockey team. They have some nice pieces, they’re able to scratch and claw to some favorable runs, and they can get on a roll…but there’s nothing about them that screams scary. Neither of their special teams are particularly good, they’re okay defensively, and have average offensive capability. All of the above is kind of what makes them dangerous; they will hang around in hockey games and capitalize on mistakes.
Rick Nash leads them in scoring, not surprisingly, and despite his average underlying numbers, Nash is still an extremely dangerous hockey player. While he may not be in the truly elite class, his offensive instincts from the blueline in are formidable, and giving him too much space is the recipe to be burned. R.J. Umberger, Jakub Voracek and the injured Derrick Brassard have provided nice secondary scoring for a sometimes offensively challenged team. Here are lines and pairings for tonight:
Rich Nash-Antoine Vermette-Jakub Voracek
Matt Calvert-Derek MacKenzie-R.J. Umberger
Derek Dorsett-Sammy Pahlsson-Scottie Upshall
Ethan Moreau-Chris Clark-Jared Boll
Jan Hejda-Sami Lepisto
Fedor Tyutin-Grant Clitsome
Kris Russel-John Moore
The Columbus back end isn’t a who’s who to start with, so the loss of Anton Stralman to a knee injury isn’t going to help matters. The team is also without former Flames forward Kristian Huselius thanks to an ankle injury; he’s listed day-to-day. Brassard’s hand injury still has him out of the lineup indefinetely.
It sounds as if Steve Mason will start tonight, but with the Jackets not skating or even coming around the rink today, it’s tough to tell. Mason got yanked in Edmonton last night after allowing the fourth goal, which leads the Columbus broadcasters to assume he’ll get the start. He’s been pretty good as of late, last night not withstanding.
Columbus needs this game. It’s a huge opportunity for the visitors to reel in a team they’re chasing in the Western Conference. Calgary needs this game. It’s a huge opportunity to put a chasing team in their rear view mirror, and extending a lead to eight points is a good way in doing that. The Jackets have played the Flames tough the last two games, so this one should be tight.