The Flames' first line, following a signature effort at the Joe, has fallen off a cliff in terms of performance. I'm at the point, again, where I don't care who Jarome Iginla plays with, as long as it isn't against the top line from the opposition. He and his mates weren't openly terrible against Detroit, but they have to drive the team's offence, and it didn't happen, just like it didn't happen against the Canucks. Iginla and Stajan look particularly inept when the Flames are up a man, which seems like an intractable problem for the Flames this year, just as it was late last year with a different set of personnel and coaches. Iginla doesn't choose who he matches up against, of course, which is a matter I'll reserve comment on until the end of this piece.
Daymond Langkow missed his new running buddy Christopher Higgins last time out, as he, Hagman and Kotalik struggled to keep up with Henrik Zetterberg. Shutting down those sorts of players isn't always a simple thing, so losing a line mate that seems so adept at controlling the puck was always going to be a bother. As well, Ales Kotalik's continued presence on a line that the Flames rely on to play versus good comp is a particular irritant at the moment. If there's any worthwhile evidence in support of his rating that sort of ice time, I'm having a bear of a time finding it. He also has a history performing in another role that requires further discussion in a smidge.
Craig Conroy's play has steadily improved since his return from injury, and he, Nigel Dawes and David Moss were pretty decent against the Wings. Their play would normally fill me with some optimism for better things if there was a bit more season left to play out. Further down the roster, Curtis Glencross' missed penalty shot certainly fit the turning point narrative to a tee, but my greater concern is that he, Mayers, and Nystrom spent about 10 minutes at EV accomplishing nothing. I don't expect bottom sixers to run good players off the road, but if the Flames have any hope of salvaging things, the Flames require the bottom end to out-duel their opposition. It isn't like the top guys are going to.
I thought Jay Bouwmeester, with limited assistance, was pretty good the other night, and Giordano and Sarich didn't look too bad. One thing that is noticeable is that footspeed is a serious concern for Sarich and Staios at the moment. There's no chance that problem gets solved since they aren't going turn back the calendar for those two gents, so that matter is insoluble this year. Sitting Adam Pardy for Steve Staios doesn't strike me as an upgrade, and it will be less so next year. Sigh.
Kipper was solid on Monday, and with his two periods off the other night, I'd suspect he'll go in Denver. He's virtually the only Flame who's season to date has been worthy of elite status. Thank goodness too, because this team's standings spot would be damned sickly had he not operated at Vezina level this year.
The Avalanche, after a brief blip coming out of the Olympics, are right back to their normal regime. That is, being out-shot by a million, scoring a pile anyway, and ending the night in front. They beat St. Louis in that fashion last night, winning 5-3 with Peter Budaj in net. It appears that the voodoo that Colorado working has applies to newcomers as well. Peter Mueller was going nowhere in Phoenix, heading towards the "bust" label at warp speed. Two weeks into his Denver residency has turned him completely, with the Minnesotan tallying 4 goals and 7 assists in 7 games, in stark contrast to the 17 points he managed in 54 games with the Coyotes. You'll also be utterly surprised to note that he's gone from shooting about 4.5% in the desert to 25% with the 'Lanche. Hmm. Craig Anderson, after taking last night off, will start in the nets. He stopped
approximately 23 million 48 shots in his last outing against the Stars, where Colorado posted another 5-3 win.
As for tonight, this seems a good spot for a few words about Brent Sutter. I've tried, with declining levels of patience, not to spend every pre-game of late filleting his performance, but he's taken a healthy team with elite goaltending absolutely nowhere. As maimster mentioned in the Detroit post-game, the admittedly good work the club has done in suppressing offence has only permitted the treading of water. Back in the fall, I couldn't imagine that reducing shots against by about 1 a game would result in the team averaging 4 fewer shots for. The passiveness that the Flames show on virtually every night has been maddening, and the line matching choices that we've seen (4th line after an opposition icing), suggest someone not quite in touch with the action on the ice. Sutter has certainly been hamstrung by the presence of a diminishing Jarome Iginla this year, with the team no longer able to count on the regular leaping of tall buildings by number 12. That happens to all sorts of teams, however, and the inability to get Iginla easier match-ups is at the feet of the coach, particularly since Higgins and Langkow paired up to provide a viable hard-minutes duo.
Equally odd is the recent insistence in acting as if Ales Kotalik is a tough-minutes grinder who has no pedigree as a point man on the PP. Kotalik's one extra skill is a plus shot, so not allowing him chances to use it is just another questionable decision in a litany of them. A team that regularly features either Steve Staios or Robyn Regehr on the second PP might be many things, but dangerous likely isn't any of them, and the Flames, with few exceptions, have gone that route all year.
Tonight, then, is quite possibly the last chance to grab some oxygen in a place where that is literally in short supply most days. Colorado, as always, can be had, but the Flames have looked clueless against the Avalanche, and we can complain about bad luck all we might wish, but the Flame forwards, for all the zone time and possession they pile up, never seem to get a clean look at the net against these dudes. If I had to make one tactical request of the team as a whole, a shot-fake to take a Avalanche defender out of position once in a while shouldn't be too much to ask, should it?
Game time is 7 MT. I genuinely hope that by the end of this evening, I'll wish I could have watched instead of waiting for Broken Bells to come on stage at Stubbs. I'm off doing fun stuff all day, so with that in mind, I've posted this early, so if there are any line-up changes, like Higgins being declared fit, please drop them in comments.