8 PM MT
Opposition: The Copper and Blue
I'll confess that this period of the Flames' schedule, although certainly good for nicked players and instructing coaches, still seems fit more for Dean Youngblood than the NHL. Tonight marks a return to hostilities, as the Oilers enter the Dome, with thoughts of revenge being flouted in the press. Beyond whatever may or may not occur in the fistic realm, the two teams have gotten off to remarkably similar starts, and not just in the standings.
The 6-2-1 records are the first obvious point of equality, but the SF/SA numbers are equally matching, and I suspect equally unsatisfactory to Sutter and Quinn. I can't imagine either squad's record would stay healthy for very long with shot differentials in the red to the tune of 8-9 per game, but they've both escaped due to good PP work and good overall SH %. The Flames' 16.5 SH% in nearly matched by Edmonton's 15.6%. Just as a point of reference, Pittsburgh led the league with a 10.9 SH%, so I think you know what the chances are of those numbers holding up. Enjoy it while it lasts, in other words.
From a Flames' POV, the return of Jarome Iginla to the land of the living was a welcome sight Tuesday. He didn't have to play against Nash very much, and Jan Hejda's absence eased things, but it was still better by a fair bit. He was in the black for both Corsi and scoring chances, and irrespective of QComp levels, the Flames need 12 to get in gear. I'm still uncertain as to the long term staying power of Conroy as the team's number one center, but I suppose if it gets Iginla headed in the right direction it'll do for now. The excellent Curtis Glencross never hurts a line, either. Also, doesn't he always seem to prosper when playing against the Oilers? Hmmm.
Dawes-Langkow-Bourque also ended the night in the Corsi black, and given that they got a snoot full of Nash et al, good on 'em. Dawes and Langkow have some pretty dreadful +/- numbers, but they basically got them in a two game span, so I'm hoping that it isn't undue optimism when saying that I'm not too worried yet. I'll be curious to see if Sutter takes the approach he did on Tuesday, because it would mean they'd get significant head-to-head time against Gagpensky tonight.
I'm pretty much officially behind the Matt Fenwick premise regarding Olli Jokinen at this point. Great shot, no game. That stipulated, if Sutter can shelter him, I suppose it's possible he'll awaken, because this level of play really is poor by his standards. Since Jokinen became a regular offensive threat in 02/03, he's been a pretty consistent 10-12% shooter, and has averaged 3-4 shots per game. That's a pretty robust sample size, so there's still hope for a breakout, since he's currently has taken only 15 shots in 9 games and converted on 6.7% of them. If he breaks out, that doesn't mean he'll be any good overall, but I don't think he's a 10 goal man either. He'll apparently have another night with the Stroms, so if nothing else we can hope for another Freddie Sjostrom highlight reel.
There are rumblings David Moss might give it a go, but the pre-game skate will determine that. After Brian McGrattan's feel-good effort against the Canucks, he was a non-factor against the Blue Jackets, as Calgary went with 11 forwards from the 14 minute mark of the first period onward. I know there's talk of MacIntyre vs. McGrattan and some bad blood from the Iginla-Souray play, but if Moss can go, I still want the superior player iced. That would shuffle the lines, but getting Moss back in would be worth it. If not, I suppose we'll see a square dance of some sort between the two enforcers.
The D parings appear to be status quo, so Aaron Johnson gets another look, and Bouwmeester-Sarich appears to be the new number one pair against the big guns, at least for now. Robyn Regher has had back to back +3 efforts, so what ever malady or funk he had seems to have waned. He's still likely to finish the year playing the other team's elite, but this is the first time in a while where he isn't an automatic choice to take every late game D zone face-off when the Flames are leading. That's not all bad.
Miikka Kiprusoff will go again in net. Randy Sportak might be gilding the lily a bit in this piece from yesterday, but Kipper's 5 V 5 SV% is .920. That isn't bad at all, and keep in mind he was .899 by that metric last year. If the Flames start killing penalties on home ice at a rate of higher than 66.7%, his overall SV% might not look as bad. I've been as hard on him as anyone, but he's been somewhat better this year, and if he keeps playing at his current level, his SV% numbers will start to show it. It would be nice if he wasn't facing 25 shots a night 5 V 5 as well, but that's another matter.
The Auld Enemy, as mentioned, have been getting the bounces as well to this point. As a more direct matter of concern for the Flames, Dustin Penner looks like he's found the confidence and chemistry needed to get results with Ales Hemsky. He's not going to shoot 25.9% all year, but he's been a right handful out there this year. If you want to watch a stat for him as the season progresses, check his shot totals. He's averaging 3 a game, and that's about half a shot more than he's ever done over a full season. 240 shots at a SH% of 12, which is where he's roughly been historically, is good for about 29 goals, and I wouldn't be surprised if he gets in that neighbourhood by the end of the season.
The Oilers are, along with a other few teams, flu-stricken at this point. Theo Peckham has been called up, with the potential of Jason Strudwick moving to a forward spot if Mike Comrie is too ill. Nikolai Khabibulin will likely go in net.
As mentioned up top, I do wonder who Sutter will have out against the Penner-Gagner-Hemsky line. If it's Langkow's group, this should be a chance for Iginla or Jokinen to get good match-ups, especially if the flu shuffles Edmonton's deck any further. One trend I hope to see continue is the reduction in 5 V 5 shots. The Flames gave up 31 in Chicago, 27 in Columbus, 21 against the Canucks and only 16 on Tuesday. That's a progression I can certainly get behind.
Game time is 8 MT, with the People's Network covering. The first two games have been pretty enjoyable, and a similar result on the scoreboard would be just fine, thank you very much.