As Kent pointed out in the post-game, the "first" line is still in the feeling-out mode. Iginla hasn't played poorly, but the movement that certain other sets of forwards are showing hasn't quite been there for the captain and his new mates. Again, they haven't been bad, but there's the sense that they have a bit more in the tank. One thing that has been a massive upgrade is the ability of Matt Stajan on the dot. He went 7-8 last night, including several wins in a row on the excellent first period PP that resulted in Kotalik's goal. Stajan, Iginla and Backlund went a smooth 17-20 last night.
Daymond Langkow didn't quite match that level of excellence in the circle, but he was terrific again in every other aspect of the game. His new playmates Higgins and Kotalik were right there with him as a dominant trio in terms of possession. Chris Higgins was on-ice for 12 SOG for and only 2 against, which is almost identical to his work versus Carolina. Not much bad can happen when the puck is in the good end of the ice, and that line spent the whole night bottling up Florida to the point where the Panther forwards were reduced to simply dumping the puck in and changing.
Bourque, Backlund and Glencross were good again as well. Brent Sutter is still managing Backlund's ice time, and he was careful to insert Jamal Mayers for a late game faceoff in the Calgary end, but the young man isn't doing much wrong when he's playing. The thing that I've noticed repeatedly since the Phoenix game is his understanding of proper positioning. Honestly, there are some players that never learn where to go on the ice, and that includes some fairly famous ones. Mikael Backlund will likely never wow us with straight skill, but the smart little plays to keep a cycle going or to break up a rush should never be overlooked, and he seems to have a lot of that stuff in his tool box at the age of 20. He's certainly had very good line mates the last couple of games, but he saw a fair bit of Steve Reinprecht and even David Booth, and never looked much the worse for it.
One of the things that the last couple of games has reinforced, at least for me, is a matter that Ray Shero touched upon in a very interesting interview with the Globe and Mail's Matthew Sekeres this morning. There's some talk about Shero's view of the Phaneuf trade, but the line that caught my eye was this one:
But Shero said trade dissections that centre on the "best player" are outdated in a cap era, when a player's value is also based on his cost.
This sort of thinking is, to be honest, what a lot of us have internalized over the last few years. If a player is getting an elite salary and isn't clearly out-stripping less expensive players, you have to consider moving on. Dion Phaneuf may well be a better player than any of the players involved in this week's moves, and he may well become an elite defenceman, but the gulf between him and the players added is currently defined more by paycheque than by measurable performance.
That also goes for Cory Sarich at the moment, in spades. This might sound harsh, but if I'm running the show, he would have four games left to get it together, or I'd be looking to cut my losses on his deal when the trade freeze ends. Again, for his contract to be full value, he needs to be a legit top four defenceman. Absent that, well, you have to begin assessing what his value to the team really is. As for the rest of the crew, Ian White and Robyn Regehr had a bit of a shaky start, but did seem to smooth things out as the night progressed, and they certainly benefited from the strong play of the Flame forwards. They aren't my first choice pairing for the job of shutdown D, but Sutter seems intent on having a puck mover on every pair.
Still no word on the goalie, but given the fact that Kipper could have spent last night's third period chaining a pack of Marlboros without being disturbed, he might well get the nod. I'm not sure that McE versus Stamkos et al would be my choice tonight, or ever, for that matter.
The Lightning, as mentioned, have some terrific top end talent. Steven Stamkos has made the move to scorer this season, tallying 31 goals thus far. He's not being explicitly sheltered, either, with middling Zone Start numbers and pretty good QComp. Now that Steve Downie is beginning to show some signs of being more than a nitwit, the 'Ning have developed a very functional top-six, and are in a playoff spot despite a minus 20 goal differential. On the back end, they've got about as much as they could have reasonably expected from Hedman and Ohlund, given their respective ages, but Andrej Meszaros has been a disappointment, and they miss Paul Ranger, who's absence from the team since game eight for personal reasons is one of those strange mysteries that would have gotten much more scrutiny in a hockey-centric media market.
In net, the Lightning will go with Antero Niittymaki, and he's been very good as Mike Smith has battled both his own play and some injuries this year. Rick Tocchet has publicly proclaimed that Smith is the guy, but he's been hurt enough the last two years that I wonder if that's going to hold. If Tocchet is serious, I know a team that could use a back-up at the deadline like Niittymaki, who only makes 600K.
The one place where Tampa can do significant damage is on the PP. They're currently in the top ten percentage-wise, and Stamkos has 13 PP markers on his own. That's really the key to the game, IMO. If the Flames can keep this game at EV, Tampa's forward depth falls right off the cliff after the first two lines.
Game time is 5 PM MT, with CBC having regional coverage in Alberta.