FGD #44: Back In Action! (7pm MT, SN West)

After four days off – well, one day off and three days of practice – the Calgary Flames are back in action in a stop/start month of January. They’ve hit the road for a four-game sojourn into the belly of the beast: the Pacific Division. These next four games will determine whether the team sticks with the playoff pack or falls back.

Tonight’s test pits the Flames (22-18-3, 47 points) against Glendale’s favourite hockey club, the Arizona Coyotes (16-22-4, 36 points). Much like the visitors tonight, the Coyotes have been characterized as a team of fits and starts. They’ve gone on decent runs, but they’ve also slid back into bad habits every now and then, and their goaltending hasn’t done them any favours.

This is the fourth of five meetings between the Flames and Coyotes. The Flames have won the prior three: 5-3, 3-0 and 5-2. The puck drops for round four at 7pm MT on Sportsnet West and Sportsnet 960 The Fan.

THE FLAMES

Lines via Daily Faceoff:

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The BIG NEWS is that Drew Shore makes his Calgary Flames debut (wearing #22) and Joni Ortio gets a second start, fresh off making 36 saves in a 1-0 shutout victory over the dastardly Vancouver Canucks on Saturday night.

Karri Ramo and Josh Jooris remain on the injured reserve, while Sam Bennett remains on the non-roster injured list. Mason Raymond and Markus Granlund are your extra forwards tonight, while Ladislav Smid looks to be the odd man out on defense. I fully expect Granlund to depart once Jooris is healthy, but Raymond continues to surprise, and not in positive ways.

The biggest question is how the Flames will respond after an emotional win against Vancouver…and then four days without a game. The last time they were off for four days, they responded with a rather uneven game against Detroit that saw them have an energetic first 10 minutes and then fall off. They’ll need to be sharp to put down the Coyotes and start this road trip off on the right foot.

THE COYOTES

Lines via Daily Faceoff:

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Only 13 points out of a playoff spot, the Coyotes are very much playing for next year. Exhibit A: Devan Dubnyk, their good goaltender, getting traded to Minnesota for a draft pick. (Mike McKenna is the new back-up.) The Coyotes have won twice this month but have lost their past two games. They lost 3-2 to the San Jose Sharks on Tuesday.

I like several players on the Coyotes, but the whole is definitely less than the sum of its parts right now. And those parts are likely to get even more obscure, as the Coyotes begin to load up for next season and try to sell off anything that’s not nailed down for picks or prospects.

SCOREBOARD WATCHING

The Flames open up tonight two points out of the last wildcard spot in the West and three points back of the Los Angeles Kings for the final divisional playoff spot.

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Tonight, in games with Western playoff implications:

  • Vancouver visits Philadelphia!
  • Colorado visits Florida!
  • Winnipeg faces Dallas!
  • San Jose hosts Toronto!

And let’s all thank the New Jersey Devils, whose spanking of the Los Angeles Kings last night gives Calgary a game in hand, which they burn off tonight. A win tonight can put Calgary a single point away from the playoffs.

So it’s a big game, and the first of four big games on this road trip.

SUM IT UP

With 43 games in the books and a playoff spot in sight, the Calgary Flames are about to go through a very important stretch of hockey. After tonight, they make stops in San Jose, Los Angeles and Anaheim, facing divisional foes who they have traditionally had a tough time against. But with the team seemingly “in it” in terms of a playoff race, now is the time to prove if they’re pretenders or not.

Curious if the Flames will make the post-season? We’ll have a pretty good idea what this group is all about in about week when the All-Star Break begins (when they have their next four-day break). Between now and then, all we can do is watch and wait.