Thursday's outing against the Senators was lackluster, no matter how anyone tries to spin it. Spending much of the night in your own end is tempting fate, no matter how diligent you might be in shot-blocking or how solid your goalie might be. Ending that sort of trend at one game will likely be the responsibility of Jarome Iginla and Rene Bourque, and given how Alain Vigneault arranges his line matches at home, the Flames' first unit will see a snoot full of Ryan Kesler in their attempt to do so. There are nights where a player gets a chance to prove that he belongs in a certain spot, and tonight is surely that type of opportunity for Matt Stajan. Kesler has been excellent all season in neutralizing the best that other squads have to offer, while leaving the easier pickings for the Sedins. The Flames can't lose that match-up if they have hope of winning the game, and one only hopes that the captain reprises his early January effort at the Garage.
If Vigneault does his normal stuff, I'd hope that Sutter ensures that Langkow and Higgins are out against the Sedins, even if it takes a greater degree of bench management than he might prefer. I like the Flames' chances if they can hold off Vancouver's top-six, but if the Sedins are going to dominate, I'd prefer that they had to earn it against a line that can do some good possession work of their own. That would leave Wellwood et al versus the Conroy line, and Glencross and Nystrom against guys like Darcy Hordichuk and Rick Rypien. If those sort of head-to-heads can be worked out, I'd like the odds of Calgary's bottom six coming out the better.
The Herald hints that Adam Pardy might have an outing tonight, which makes me wonder if one of the shot-blocking types from Thursday needs a game off. Should the regular six go, Ian White will get a good test of his ability against top end forwards, since Robyn Regehr has habitually faced the Sedins over the years. Whatever pair gets Kesler might have the toughest job of all, of course.
Miikka Kiprusoff will start this evening. His last visit to the Lower Mainland resulted in a 3-2 Flames' win, despite the efforts of a yahoo in the audience. With tomorrow's B2B versus the Wings as much of a must-win as any other game, I'd guess he plays both nights. Toskala might get a game this week, although it does seem tough to find a spot to fit him in.
The Canucks had every chance to come back to the pack with a 14 game stretch away from home. They didn't, posting an 8-5-1 record on their Olympic-fueled voyage, and that solid performance has them on the inside track for consecutive division crowns. Their top-six has been outstanding this season, with Mikael Samuelsson and Mason Raymond adding strong complimentary play to Sedin, Sedin, Kesler and Burrows. As I mentioned up top, Ryan Kesler does the heavy lifting most nights for Vancouver, and he's been the key to the Canucks' good year. If you ever wanted an object lesson on why looking at a player's numbers in context is valuable, go no further than number 17 on the bad guys. His mainstream +/- is +3, but he plays the opposition's best, starts in his own end more often than not, and the result is no worse than a saw-off. The Sedins have taken advantage of this easing of their burden to smack around the weak to the greater benefit of the team.
The Canucks D is a bit of a patchwork with Willie Mitchell on the shelf for the duration, although Kevin Bieksa did return to the line-up in last night's 5-1 win over Ottawa. Penalty machine Shane O' Brien will sit in favour of newly acquired Andrew Alberts, which is a shame for Calgary, since O' Brien was the one Canuck that would likely even up the PP chances. As you might expect, Roberto Luongo will be in net for Vancouver.
That Canuck PP might well be the difference maker this evening. Vancouver has had 276 PP chances to 263 PK, or 13 extra chances with the man-advantage. They're also in the top five percentage-wise when a man to the good. Calgary is 221 PP/262 PK, or -41, and have a poor PP % to boot. I'm thinking staying out of the box would be a plan, no? The other key is to not let the Sedins get off easy. Sutter needs to get his top-six out there against the Canucks' best, hope they can do a job, and let his foot soldiers out-duel Vancouver's third and fourth lines.
Game time is 8 MT on Sportsnet West.