FGD #42: Cat Fight (7pm MT; SN1)

After a tumultuous first 41 games to the season, featuring both crazy-long winning AND losing streaks, the Calgary Flames begin their back-half of the season tonight with the dream of a playoff berth swirling in their heads. The first step forwards the Flames (21-17-3) making that dream a reality is tonight against the visiting Florida Panthers (18-11-9).

The Flames and Panthers are both quite similar. Both seemingly bottomed-out last season and drafted really great hockey players – Florida got Aaron Ekblad, Calgary got Sam Bennett – and are now arguably over-achieving by virtue of good systems play and smart coaching. Both teams are presently their respective conference’s best non-playoff team. Calgary’s two points out of a playoff spot, Florida is three points back of one. Both teams are buoyed by the impressive play of a first-year player contending for the Calder (Florida’s Ekblad and Calgary’s Johnny Gaudreau).

The puck drops at 7pm MT tonight on Sportsnet One and Sportsnet 960 The Fan.

THE FLAMES

Lines for tonight via Daily Faceoff!

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Mark Giordano – T.J. Brodie
Kris Russell – Dennis Wideman
Ladislav Smid – Deryk Engelland

Jonas Hiller starts. He’s Calgary’s #1 netminder now, particularly given Karri Ramo’s injury. He’s 13-12-2 with a 2.34 goals against average, .915 save percentage and .932 even-strength save percentage through 28 appearances. Fresh from Adirondack, Joni Ortio is the back-up.

Brandon Bollig and Josh Jooris both rotate out, for performance and injury reasons respectively. That allows Jiri Hudler, who missed last game due to his wife having their first child, to return. Markus Granlund is also back, having not even checked out of his hotel room to return to the AHL yet. Ladislav Smid returns to action after missing time with an upper body injury, which puts Raphael Diaz in the press box with Bollig and Brian McGrattan.

By the by, McGrattan was placed on waivers by the Flames today. If he clears, he’ll be assigned to Adirondack. He’s played 8 times this season and been a healthy scratch 33 times (this will be his 34th game in the press box). It’s probably time.

The lines are roughly what you’d expect from this team with Backlund back and having played quite well last game; the Monahan-Hudler pairing is joined by Johnny Hockey in an effort to get some offense going, while Glencross and Backlund are joined by Colborne in the de facto shutdown line. I also find the bottom six perfectly logical, and hopefully Granlund can play more like he did at the beginning of his call-up than the end of it, because Raymond and Byron would both love to generate more offense.

THE PANTHERS

Lines from last night in Vancouver, via Daily Faceoff:

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Al Montoya starts. He’s 2-4-2, with a 2.61 goals against average, .904 save percentage and .904 even-strength save percentage in 11 apperances. Roberto Luongo backs up after his win last night in Vancouver. Erik Gudbranson, Brandon Pirri and Vincent Trocheck were scratches for the Panthers last night. I don’t anticipate any roster changes, but you never know with back-to-back games.

The Panthers have a pretty decent mix of youth and experience, and in a lot of ways resemble the Flames in that sense. They do have some nice pieces throughout their line-up – their top six and Aaron Ekblad – but depth is their Achilles’ heel. Ekblad, in particular, comes exactly as advertised: he’s big, he’s smart and he does a lot of things well. Not bad for a freakin’ 18-year-old defender. I’m also a big fan of their top line: Huberdeau, Bjugstad and Hayes are all big, fast and talented.

Shane O’Brien makes his “long awaited” return to Calgary after getting demoted by the Flames mid-season last year for being not very good at the ice hockey. His presence showcases Florida’s depth issues.

SUM IT UP

Two up-and-coming teams who want to be in the playoffs this season clash at the ‘Dome tonight! This is a winnable game for Calgary. It’s a team that played last night, in a different city, and won. The Flames will also be upset with their effort against Detroit and hopefully come out of the gates with a strong 60-minute game plan.

The Western Conference is too damn competitive for them to keep letting points slip away and still think they can contend for a playoff spot.