FGD: Quite the Stretch

By the time we get to mid-February, the Calgary Flames will have played three games against the Sharks, seen the Kings one more time, and fought it out with other high end teams like the Red Wings, Blackhawks, and Canucks.  Mix in a little Phoenix, Edmonton, and Anaheim for good measure and you’ve got a ten game stretch that really could make or break Calgary’s season.  That stretch starts tonight in San Jose (8:30 pm, Sportsnet West and Sportsnet 960).

The Flames had their three game winning streak snapped on Saturday night at the hand of the aforementioned Kings, who also halted an eight game home winning stretch for the team.  LA is a good team, but their opponent tonight is a very good team, and while Calgary wasn’t bad three nights ago, they’ll have to be a whole lot better to leave NoCal with a victory.

The Lineup

With a late morning skate in the Pacific time zone, we’ll go on Monday’s practice to start.  The Flames put Mike Cammalleri on a line with Jarome Iginla and Mikael Backlund during Saturday’s loss to LA, and that line was together once again at practice yesterday.  It took Iginla away from the pairing of Olli Jokinen and Curtis Glencross, instead putting Blake Comeau on the right side of Calgary’s defacto "second line".

Mike Cammalleri-Mikael Backlund-Jarome Iginla
Curtis Glencross-Olli Jokinen-Blake Comeau
Lane Bouma-Blair Jones-Lee Stempniak
Tom Kostopoulos-Roman Horak-Tim Jackman

Jay Bouwmeester-Chris Butler
Mark Giordano-Scott Hannan
T.J. Brodie-Cory Sarich

That blueline certainly looks a little less scary with Hannan likely returning tonight after missing the last four games with an upper body injury suffered in Boston.  If he doesn’t return tonight, Anton Babchuk would be back with Giordano on that pairing; there’s no question Babchuk is the least effective guy on the Flames blueline right now, so as much as VF likes to slag Sarich, he’s been one of the more consistent guys the last 15 games or so.

Miikka Kiprusoff will get the start in net tonight.

The Opponent

While you may look at the Sharks point total and think to yourself the team has taken a step back, it really isn’t the case at all.  San Jose has the second best winning percentage in the Western Conference, but thanks to an odd scheduling quirk, they have played a league-low 42 games so far this season.  They’re playing their best hockey of the season, going 10-1-3 over their last 14 games, and looking very impressive in the process.

Patrick Marleau-Joe Thornton-Joe Pavelski
Ryane Clowe-Logan Couture-Benn Ferriero
Jamie McGinn-Michal Handzus-Torrey Mitchell
Brad Winchester-Andrew Murray-Tommy Wingels

Dan Boyle-Marc-Edouard Vlasic
Jason Demers-Brent Burns
Douglas Murray-Justin Braun

That top line is absolutely horrifyingly good, and the two gentlemen furthest right on that top trio are straight hammering people this year.  While there haven’t been a ton of points from them so far this year, their possession numbers are just too strong for them to be held off the scoresheet with any regularity in the second half of the season.  Head Coach Todd McLellan is using them in every situation and they’re doing the job.

I know Burns gets a lot of slack among the advanced stat-heads, and it’s probably fair to say the guy is never going to turn into a true top pairing defenseman.  However, he’s very useful in the role he’s given.  It shouldn’t be a surprise to see Burns with the second highest offensive zone start number among regular Sharks, but it’s not like he hasn’t made the most of that time.  The offseason acquisition also has the highest possession rate on the entire team, so when you have the luxury to use a player to his strenghts, you might as well go ahead and do it.

San Jose has also gotten solid and consistent goaltending across the board from both starter Antti Niemi and backup Thomas Greiss.  The former missed the start of the season yet still has 33 games to his credit, clipping over 93% at even strength on his save percentage.  That puts him right in line with the rest of the very good starters in this league, while Greiss has put up better numbers, albeit in just nine starts.

The Story

The Sharks are clearly a far better team top to bottom than the Flames, and you’ll find very few who will debate that.  San Jose’s top five forwards are very good, and their top trio is right up there with the scariest in the entire National Hockey League.  Even a strong game from Calgary might not be enough to beat a team like this.  However, as we’ve said many, many times: if you’re the Flames, don’t make it any easier on them!  We all remember what happened last time out on the road…