FGD #46: A King-Sized Challenge (8:30pm MT, SN West)

We’re 45 games into the 2014-15 season and the Calgary Flames enter tonight’s game in possession of a playoff spot. The Flames’ rebuild is what it is at this point, and the team’s positives – their ability to hang in games, to make comebacks and to not let the air entirely out of the proverbial balloon when they get down in games – have out-weighed their negatives.

Are they the NHL’s best team? Heck no. They still allow a lot of scoring chances and shots and shot attempts. They’re not a fantastic possession team. But roughly (checks calendar) 15 months into the team’s reclaimation project, they have an identity, their young players are improving and this is a team that has hung around long enough in the standings to be dangerous.

Tonight, it’s the fourth game of their five-game road trip. The road trip began with a 1-0 shutout win over the Vancouver Canucks, and has since featured victories in Glendale, Arizona and San Jose, California. The Flames now face a MASSIVELY IMPORTANT, MEASURING-STICK GAME tonight against the Los Angeles Kings.

At 24-18-3, the Calgary Flames have 51 points and enter tonight tied for the last wild-card spot in the Western Conference. The team they’re tied with is the Los Angeles Kings, who have a 20-14-11 record with 51 points. The Flames win the tie-breaker by virtue of having more regulation and overtime wins (21 for Calgary, 19 for the Kings).

Last season’s big question was “Who are the Calgary Flames?” The team sought a direction and found a blue-collar, hard-working identity. The question around the Saddledome – and the NHL – this season has been “What are the Calgary Flames?” Are they a playoff team? Are they a tweener? Are they a spoiler?

After tonight’s game with the reigning, defending Stanley Cup champions at Staples Center, we’ll be well on our way to answering that question. A win places the Flames two points up on the Kings (and creeping up on the Sharks and Canucks). A loss drops them from the playoff picture for the time-being.

For a view from the other side, check out our pals at The Royal Half!

THE FLAMES

Lines via Daily Faceoff:

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Joni Ortio makes his fourth straight start after wins against Vancouver, Arizona and San Jose. His numbers are normalizing a bit – 3-0-0, 1.33 goals against average, .953 save percentage – but they’re still pretty strong. Your extra bodies are Drew Shore and Raphael Diaz. On the sidelines, for now, are Curtis Glencross, Karri Ramo, Josh Jooris and Sam Bennett.

The Flames continue to get some nice mileage out of Mikael Backlund; he’s got seven points (4 goals, 3 assists) and a plus-three rating in five games since returning, and he’s really added a missing element to the Flames attack. He’s speedy and defensively savvy, and his return can allow the team to deploy both him and Sean Monahan more strategically. And he helps makes the top six a bit more dangerous.

The Bouma/Monahan/Jones line was good, at times, against the Sharks, but their shutdown role was reasonably effective: they were only on the ice for one goal against. If they can repeat that performance tonight, and the team can get some offense from the rest of the forward group, the Flames could leave Hollywood with some more points.

THE KINGS

Lines via Daily Faceoff:

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Jonathan Quick is expected to start. He’s 16-11-9 with a 2.47 goals against average and .912 save percentage. Their injured bodies include Robyn Regehr, Tyler Toffoli, Tanner Pearson and former Calgary Hitmen backstop Martin Jones. Drew Shore’s brother, Nick, made his NHL debut on Saturday against the Anaheim Ducks and likely suits up here, too.

Injuries and inconsistency have done a number on the Kings this season, but they remain a strong club with many weapons. Muzzin and Doughty may be the best defensive pairing in the NHL not named Brodie and Giordano, and it’s always a treat to see those two pairings go up against one another. Up front, even missing two skilled young forwards, the Kings have four solid lines, and their top line is one of the best in the NHL. The Kings are about as good as the Flames five-on-five, but they’re a little bit better on the power-play and a little bit better on the penalty kill. If the Flames can keep it five-aside, it may be a smart move.

When a team’s won two Cups in three years, you can never, really take them lightly.

SCOREBOARD WATCHING

The standings heading into this evening’s games:

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Elsewhere tonight:

  • Vancouver (53 points) at Florida (50 points).
  • Colorado (48 points) at St. Louis (60 points).
  • Minnesota (45 points) hosts Columbus (41 points).
  • San Jose (54 points) hosts New Jersey (40 points).

Calgary is likely cheering for Florida, St. Louis, Columbus and New Jersey. San Jose losing again may be a stretch and St. Louis should be favoured over the Avs, but the other two games should be very close.

SUM IT UP

If the Calgary Flames are going to be a playoff team this season, they have to win games like tonight: a clash on the road, against the defending Stanley Cup champions. A win gives them some much-needed breathing room heading towards the final game of the road trip and the final game before the All-Star Break.

It’s arguably the biggest game of the season. (Well, until the next one…)