Whether you regard Calgary’s sprint to the finish line as the charge of the light brigade or instead a naive, fruitless stand against the inevitable, one has to admit it keeps thing interesting. The Flames have become something of an eternal ingenue the last three years: a tease that forever promises more over the horizon but never really delivers. That is both the frustration and the fun of living on the bubble I suppose.
While Calgary continues to run along the shore of the playoffs, the Minnesota Wild have already charted the peaks and valleys of the regular season. On December 11, Minny was the best team in the West thanks to a whole lot of unbelievable goaltending. Inevitably, their puck stopping faltered and their already lackluster depth was further undermined by a swath of injuries. Their plunge down the standings has been even more drastic than I expected.
The irony of Minnesota’s hot start is that it’s ultimate outcome will likely be to rob them of a much needed lottery pick this coming June. Even with the moves they made in the summer (Heatley, Setoguchi) and the recent acquisition of Tom Gilbert, there’s still lots left to do in Minny.
The Injury monster has claimed yet another Flame. TJ Brodie is day-to-day with an "upper body" injury, clearing a path for the triumphant return of Anton Babchuk! The NHL’s most expensive healthy scratch! Maybe he can take a page out of so many sports movies and come off the bench to score a meaningful late game tally.
Glencross – Jokinen – Moss
Tanguay – Stajan – Iginla
Baertschi – Nemisz – Kostopolous
Desbiens – Horak – Kolanos
Hannan – Giordano
Smith – Bouwmeester
Sarich – Babchuk
Speaking of comeback stories, Matt Stajan is having himself a nice late season surge as a result of all the ailments. He has been a not bad presence on the top line which speaks to the fact that "Matty Franchise" was never as bad as he was perceived in town. The contract and his association with the ill-fated Dion Phaneuf trade sunk his stock below his actual talent level. Which isn’t to say he’s an ideal top-six center or anything, but he is certainly a functional, above replacement level center in this league.
Baertschi gets his second look in the bigs this afternoon as well. The kid had good and bad points in game one, which is to be expected of any teen making the leap out of junior – he clearly needs some time to acclimate to the increased speed and strength of the opposition, but there was no hesitation or timidness to his game either. It will be interesting to see if he gets a bit more ice time against a less opponent today.
Kipper will naturally get the start.
The Wild’s best player – Mikko Koivu – has been sidelined since February 16. Latendresse has also been out for a spell and, of course, PM Bourchard remains highly skilled and as delicate as a wet napkin. They are all on the sidelines, resulting in this:
Heatley – Cullen – Setoguchi
Powe – Brodziak – Johnson
Palmieri – Peters – Ortmeyer
Veillieux – Christensen – Kassian
Scandella – Gilbert
Falk – Spurgeon
Stoner – Kampfer
And you thought the Flames had problems. The Heatley line is cerainly NHL caliber, but it gets really ugly after that. You may recognize the names Palmieri and Kassian, but these are different players than the guys you’re thinking of. Zack Kassian and Kyle Palmieri are former first round picks of the Ducks and Sabres respectively. Nick Palmieri and Matt Kassian, however, are not.
The blueline is as grim as the forward group unfortunately. The pairing of Scandella and Gilbert played over thirty minutes the other night, because the other options are just not very appealing for coach Yeo.
To top it all off, starter Backstrom is hurt leaving Matt Hackett and Josh Harding to guard the fort. Rookie Hackett has had some success during his cup coffee, managing a .943 SV% in eight appearances so far. He’ll probably get the start today.
The Sharks continue to slide thanks to a seemingly intractable cold streak, so the Flames enter action just a single point back of final playoff spot. If they can take care of business against Minnesota, Calgary could finish the day inside the top-8 for just the second time this season.