Tonight is a bit of a contrast, isn't it? One team performs the way I think most people would want their own club to go about matters. Fast, skilled, a touch on the cocky side, there's really a lot to like about how they approach the game.
The other team in the affair is, unfortunately, the focus of this very blog. They aren't a bad team, but they haven't shown consistent evidence of being elite, either. The Cluster in California has caused the type of discontent around the team and the fan base that one might well expect, and this evening's encounter with a team that has exposed their every weakness for two years running has done nothing to reduce the feelings of unease.
The gap between the two clubs is mostly a reflection of the speed and skill disparity in the two groups of forwards. Goals against on a night like Monday are often as much a reflection of a team's forward play as any thing that the D or goalies might contribute, and if you want to point out where the Flames appear deficient, it starts up front. The locals will run Conroy and Glencross out there with the captain this evening, by the sounds of things, and that really just can't last if there's any hope of this year ending well. Those two guys are fine in their role, but that role is two lines lower, full stop. If they go head to head with Toews and Kane, that's asking a lot.
The Langkow line emerged relatively unscathed from events on Monday night, and tonight's game will probably see them match some combination of Versteeg, Sharp, Ladd, Hossa, Byfuglien and Madden, with Chicago's, er, leftovers, from that sextet meeting up with Jokinen, Lundmark and Nystrom. That's not the most appetizing prospect to my mind, and even if the best of the Flames can hang in there, the depth of talent seems like a mismatch. Bourque and Dawes likely need to be very good for the night to end well.
The back line has been intact for a few weeks now, since Sarich returned from his foot injury. He admitted today that he wasn't actually healthy when he returned for his initial stint on the roster. No matter who's on the blue, they need help from the forwards in terms of keeping the Hawks in their own end for a change. The Flame D isn't really that slow anymore, but when forwards come at you unimpeded all night, it might make you look behind the pace.
Miikka Kiprusoff will have a chance to get back on the horse tonight, with his two periods work in San Jose being a), not his best and b), not relevant in the final outcome. He needs to play a blinder tonight for the Flames to win, IMO.
I've talked enough about the Hawk strengths, so with that in mind, it's pretty clear that whatever weakness they have exists from the blue line back. Keith and Seabrook are stellar, obviously, but beyond that, they're just OK. Brian Campbell has taken advantage of softer comp to run up some nice boxcar numbers, but nobody really looks at him as a defensive stalwart. In net, Antti Niemi will start in goal after a rough night in Ottawa for Cristobal Huet. Goaltending will be looked at as the potential Achilles heel for the Hawks until they win a Cup, frankly, and that often isn't the perfect reflection of whether a goalie is any good. Chris Osgood for the Hall of Fame, and all that jazz. Niemi looks like a pretty good goalie, so he may end up getting a shot at the number one job when April rolls around.
Game wise? Stay out of the box. The Flames got pantsed by the Hawk PP last time around, and they're currently running 6th in the league by percentage. The other matter is if the Hawks have the Flames beat before the game ever happens. I've always been of the opinion that a lot of alleged mental blocks are really just a manifestation of a talent disparity exposed, but if the Hawks actually are in Calgary's heads, that shit's got to go, because Chicago is likely to be in the way at some juncture of the playoffs. If tonight turns out poorly, the four days before the team plays St. Louis might be very uncomfortable, and could well present the opportunity for a roster change or two.
Game time is 7:30 MT on TSN.