FGD: Dog Days

For the high end teams, this time of year is kind of when it’s really tough to stay motivated for regular season games.  The playoffs are around the corner, but they’re not here yet, so maybe this is when things slip a little.  Just ask Chicago and Boston.  They’ll tell you they call this the dog days for a reason.  The Calgary Flames don’t have that luxury, however, as they face some dogs of their own tonight, visiting the Phoenix Coyotes for the first time this season (7 pm, Sportsnet West and Sportsnet 960).

Last night saw Calgary take a hard earned 4-3 victory over the San Jose Sharks, snapping a five game losing skid against them in the process.  There were a lot of things to like in Calgary’s game, and it sets them up with the potential of taking five of a possible six points on this three game trip.  Now just one point back of a playoff spot, games don’t start decreasing in importance here, especially considering Phoenix is one of the teams sitting just a single point ahead.

The Lineup

For the first time since January’s debacle in Boston, a goaltender other than Miikka Kiprusoff will make the start in net.  It’ll be Leland Irving going tonight, the same guy who started in Beantown.  Now Irving has gotten some starts in Abbotsford since then, which was by design, knowing they needed him to start a few times this month.  Henrik Karlsson remains with the Heat on a conditioning stint, and looks to start at the Saddledome tonight when they take on the Oklahoma City Barons.

Alex Tanguay-Olli Jokinen-Jarome Iginla
Mike Cammalleri-Blair Jones-Blake Comeau
Krys Kolanos-Mikael Backlund-Lance Bouma
Tom Kostopoulos-Matt Stajan-Tim Jackman

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

I’ve really liked Tanguay since his return to the Flames lineup, and I think he’s the biggest reason why Calgary’s powerplay has scored in four straight games and eight times over their last 11.  He’s been very, very strong for the team, and is dangerous offensively almost every time he’s on the ice.  Tanguay helps elevate the game of Jarome Iginla and Olli Jokinen with his vision and playmaking ability, and he’s done that of late.

The Opposition

This is a Phoenix team without any true heavy hitters, but with some very, very useful hockey players.  I know not every team in the NHL buys heavily into some of the advanced stats available at behindthenet.ca, but some certainly do (or have their own similar metrics), and I would be shocked if the Coyotes weren’t one of them.  Without a budget to pay true high end talent, they’ve put together a group of players with histories of moving the play and contributing to wins.

Ray Whitney-Martin Hanzal-Radim Vrbata
Lauri Korpikoski-Boyd Gordon-Shane Doan
Raffi Torres-Daymond Langkow-Mikkel Boedker
Taylor Pyatt-Kyle Chipchura-Gilbert Brule

Keith Yandle-Adrian Aucoin
Oliver Ekman-Larsson-Rostislav Klesla
Michal Roszival-Derek Morris

Phoenix’s top line features one of the more under appreciated centres in all of hockey, as Martin Hanzal is as good a true two-way forward as you’re going to find.  He plays against the heavies on the other side, spends far more time in the offensive zone, and can play in all three zones.  His possession numbers put him up there with some of the better middlemen in this league; but it’s his point totals which seperate him from that class; he has eight goals and 24 points this season.

Ray Whitney doesn’t age, as he leads this team with 49 points in 54 games while linemate Vrbata is having a career year with 25 goals and 45 points up to now.  Langkow may not be as effective as he was even in his last full season with the Flames, but he’s been very effective in his role in Phoenix, affecting the play as per usual while guys like Doan, Torres, and even Chipchura help out in small ways.

The blueline is solid if not spectacular, but it truly has gotten the job done.  Compared to the Flames, Phoenix comes out as a more positive possession squad and they’ve also gotten decent goaltending to go along with it.  Many scoffed when the Coyotes decided to go with Mike Smith between the pipes this year, but in 42 appearances he’s been pretty good.  He’s stopping just under 93% of shots at even strength and is giving this team a chance to win, which is something he’s never really done consistently at this level.

The Story

While all points matter at this point for the Flames, games against heavy hitters like San Jose or Chicago are great but don’t carry the same standings wallop that a win over Phoenix might.  These are those true "four point games" and the Flames need to approach it as such.  They had some nice zip in their game against the Sharks and they’ll need that or more against the Coyotes, because this game is just as important to them.

  • xis10ce

    I was thinking about the Karlson / Irving issue and our chances to make the playoffs right now. We are clearly in playoff mode in Feb, which means we are going to ride the crap out of Kipper till the bitter end and more so while he’s hot like right now. But we know Karlson hasn’t even been replacement level so far this year and yes he is down for a conditioning stint (how long do those last) but he will be back and there are 3 B2B’s in March, around the 1st, 15th and 31st. What is the plan for those? Send Karls down for another conditioning stint then roll the dice for the other 2?

    • RexLibris

      Why not just waive Karlsson and be done with it. Send him to the AHL, give some teams a free chance to take him at 100% of his salary and then re-assess in the summer.

      As much as February is a must-win month for Calgary, March, as you’ve said with the three back-to-back series, may become the month where the Flames are forced to see what they have developed in Irving. Experience has shown over and over that the Flames push Kiprusoff too hard in the stretch drive for the playoffs and then talk about addressing his workload during the off-season. This year they might finally have to back up that sentiment with action.

      • PrairieStew

        Disagree. Despite limited time, the Tower has been the best backup for Kipper since Mikka arrived in Calgary.

        In the 5 years prior to Karlsson, backup goalies in Calgary averaged 581 minutes played, a 3.52 GAA an .892 sv % and an average of 6.8 pts earned in the standings.

        Last year Karlsson got better as the year went on and ended up with 838 minutes, 2.58 .908 and 14 points earned. Absent the knee injury and a little more scoring support he could have been well on his way to improving those numbers. Why not wait until summer to make a decision – based not only on how he finishes, but how Irving finishes.

        • xis10ce

          When compared directly (Irving and Karlsson) we are looking at 75% vs 20% QS and 0.908 vs 0.895 SV%. While I agree Karlsson looked ok last year, this year he hasn’t (albeit on a small scale sample), what it comes down to is we might be risking the season on a goalie that just has not preformed.

  • PrairieStew

    That both Aucoin and Morris are still contributing in meaningful ways is bittersweet. The Flames have struggled this year to find solid contributions from right shooting defencemen, and have often run out a lineup of entirely left shooters, which is less than ideal.

  • PrairieStew

    I was surprised to see Kipper last night, since SJ is not a team we are chasing. Winning was great, since it was the least likely victory of the all the Flames games remaining after the break ( Road game against the team with the best home record) Beating Phoenix is far more important, so sending Irving back out there is a bit out of character for this team. Here’s hoping he nails it.

    As to the use of Karlsson down the stretch the second against Anaheim ( hopefully after beating Phoenix the day before), the 16th in Edmonton ( after beating Phoenix at home) and maybe the 30th at home against Colorado, before heading to Vancouver.