When it comes to the Western Conference playoff race, there’s a quote that I like (attributed to author Jim Butcher) that seems to apply to this situation: “You don’t have to run faster than the bear to get away. You just have to run faster than the guy next to you.” The Calgary Flames don’t have to be the best team in their conference to make the playoffs; they just have to be better than one or two teams. As our pal Pat Steinberg has noted on Sportsnet 960 The Fan in recent days: all they have to do is win more than the teams around them and they’re in.
Tonight, the Flames have a golden opportunity to trip up a team between them and the proverbial bear (which represents a hockey-less spring) as they host the Nashville Predators. There are nine teams with a strong shot at a playoff spot, with Calgary and Nashville currently dueling for the final wildcard spot (when you factor in points percentages rather than pure points). A win tonight can trip up the Predators and give the Flames some breathing room.
The puck drops on this important game at 7 p.m. MT on Sportsnet West and Sportsnet 960 The Fan!
Lines via Daily Faceoff:
Chad Johnson is back between the pipes after picking up the win on Tuesday against Florida. It’s his 28th start of the season. He’s 16-10-1 with a 2.24 goals against average and .923 save percentage. Among the 39 goals who have played 20+ games this season, Johnson is sixth in save percentage. (Brian Elliott is 39th.)
The big lineup news for the Flames is that Sam Bennett will be watching from the press box as a healthy scratch. Bennett hasn’t been very good at all lately, and if nothing else this will give him a chance to reset himself heading into the meat of the season – where the Flames will need all hands on deck. Ladislav Smid (LTIR, neck) and Garnet Hathaway (day-to-day, upper body) are also out tonight, joined by regular healthy scratch Brett Kulak. Micheal Ferland returns after missing a few games with a lingering lower body injury. In Bennett’s absence, Matt Stajan moves up to center the third line.
We’ve written and tweeted a lot about the Flames’ top line of Mikael Backlund, Michael Frolik and 19-Year-Old Matthew Tkachuk this year. As of this morning, the trio has combined for 41 even strength points (tops on the team and more than double any other forward combination) and 15 power play points (just one behind the quartet of Monahan, Gaudreau, Versteeg and Brouwer). Any way you wish to slice it, these guys have been found money for the Flames this season and are giving the team a chance to win. If somehow guys like Monahan, Gaudreau and Sam Bennett can get their offense going, this team could potentially go from being a fringe playoff team into something special.
Lines via Daily Faceoff:
Pekke Rinne starts for Nashville. He’s 16-12-6 with a 2.36 goals against average and .921 save percentage. He’s been good for the Preds this season and given them a chance to win, though it sounds like he hasn’t stolen as many games as they may have needed him to.
Update: Based on morning skate, Juuse Saros starts for the Preds. He’s 4-3-1 with a 1.25 goals against average and .957 save percentage. Before you freak out about those numbers: sample size. I imagine this move means that the Predators are saving Rinne’s start for tomorrow against the Oilers.
The Predators are injured ravaged right now and their much-vaunted defensive depth is being tested without P.K. Subban and Roman Josi (and young forward Miikka Salomaki). Subban is nearing a return and practiced yesterday, but last word was he’s questionable for tonight. That doesn’t mean he won’t play, but it means they’re not sure as of his status yet. Considering the nature of his injury, the Predators will likely err on the side of caution given how important #76 will be to their potential playoff run.
In 65 previous regular season meetings between Calgary and Nashville, the Flames have a 31-28-6 record. This is the first of three meetings between these Western Conference rivals. Last season, the Flames won two of three meetings with both of their wins coming in overtime. Expect a lot of tight games, folks. They play again in Nashville in February and March.
KNOW THY ENEMY
Here are some Predators follows for your reference tonight:
THE ROAD TO 90
To make the playoffs, the Flames probably need around 90 points. Coming into tonight’s game they have 51 points in 47 games. They’ll need to get 39 points in the remaining 35 games to clinch a playoff spot. They’ll need roughly 19 wins to get to that level.
SUM IT UP
It’s a huge game for the playoff hopes of both the Flames and the Predators. The Flames are feeling good about themselves after their win over Florida and are undoubtedly hoping to build some momentum as they head towards their big Battle of Alberta rematch on Saturday night. Expect a tight-checking game and a playoff-like atmosphere under the ‘Dome tonight.