As early as a month ago I wouldn’t have circled this date on the Flames schedule. The Sharks have been a perpetual powerhouse in the West since the lock-out and there was little reason to doubt that reputation until recently. However, the hockey gods are fickle as ever, so as it stands Calgary and San Jose will be battling for the 8th and final playoff spot in the WC tonight.
While San Jose’s plunge down the standings has some already declaring their fall from grace a permanent one, I’m personally far less convinced the Sharks current blip is indicative of their true talent level. All of their fundamental results are excellent or better: no team generates more shots on net per game (34.5), no team outshoots their opponents by more per game (+6.2) and the Sharks are still the best club in the league at getting shots on the man advantage by a sizable margin (65.7 per hour. Vancouver is second at 58.0).
Those aren’t the underlying numbers of a rapidly fading super power. San Jose’s problems right now are the fleeting but temporarily insurmountable kind – mediocre finishing coupled with abysmal goaltending. Excepting their win over the Oilers last night, the Sharks even strength save percentage over their last 13 contests was just .902 (league average is about .920). Their even strength shooting percentage over the same span was south of 7%. So although they were routinely putting more pucks on net than their foes, the wins weren’t coming. Their PP remains appropriately potent (20.7%, third in the league) but when your goalies can’t stop a beach ball and most of your shooters are ice cold, everything becomes harder.
At some point the bounces will rebound and the Sharks will start winning much more than they lose. For the sake of Calgary’s playoff hopes, however, Flames fans have to hope that doesn’t start tonight.
Although Blake Comeau is back skating and likely a game time decision, the Flames lines remained unchanged at practice this morning.
Glencross – Jokinen – Moss
Tanguay – Stajan – Iginla
Baertschi – Nemisz – Kostopolous
Desbiens – Horak – Kolanos
Hannan – Giordano
Sarich – Bouwmeester
Smith – Babchuk
Sutter re-jigged his defense pairings somewhat in the absence of TJ Brodie, dropping Smith back with Babchuk and elevating Sarich to play with Bouwmeester. I suspect this has less to do with promoting Sarich and more to do with balancing each duo with at least one mobile defender. Sutter has consistently sought to have one guy who can move the puck on each pairing for a couple of years now and given he thought of Sarich and Babchuk together (even if they were sheltered), it’s hard to disagree.
The first couple of lines are scoring again, in part because Tanguay continues to play some inspired hockey inside the offensive blueline and in part because Curtis Glencross is currently the King Midas of the NHL. The team still gives up too many shots and chances against for my liking, but at this point the Flames have to try to ride any wave that comes along.
Kipper is in net of course. If Comeau returns, expect him to replace someone like Desbiens or Kolanos.
Martin Havlat has been out forever, creating a bit of a hole in the top of the rotation for San Jose. They added depth options Daniel Winnik and TJ Galiardi at the deadline, but those guys aren’t quite in the same league as Havlat, Pavelski, Thornton etc.
Couture – Thornton – Pavelski
Winnik – Marleau – Clowe
Mitchell – Moore – Wingels
Feirrero – Desjardins – Galiardi
Vlasic – Boyle
Burns – Murray
Braun – Demers
Even with Winnik on the wing, the top two units remain terrifying. And let’s not sell Winnik short – although he can’t seem to finish, he’s something of David Moss quality player – a guy who makes very few mistakes and always helps the puck travel in the right direction.
The Sharks defense pairings were all over the map in Edmonton yesterday with Brent Burns spending as much time at ES with Vlasic as with Murray and Braun skating with Boyle more than anyone else, so take the above duos with a pinch of salt.
Obviously one thing the Flames have to do tonight is stay out of the box. The Sharks have struggled against bad percentages at 5on5, but for my money they are the best overall team in the league with a man up. Thornton, Marleau, Pavelski, Boyle, Burns, Clowe, Couture…they can put two dangerous units out on any given night.
From here on out, every game is the most important game of the season. That’s true tonight as well, for both the Sharks and the Flames. Expectations and pressure is even higher in San Jose than Calgary since the team was forecast by many to be a cup favorite prior to the start of the year, so you can bet everyone from the GM to the athletic trainer will be fighting tooth and nail to make the dance. Calgary wil have to match that desperation in order to have any hope this evening.