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Flames vs. Wild Game Thread

Xcel Energy Center
Opposition: Hockey Wilderness
TV: Sportsnet West
What was it I said the other day about a nice win that leaves the Flames no closer to the playoffs? With the excitement from Friday's victory fading, last night's results were just a reminder of the place Calgary finds themselves in with three weeks left on the schedule. In the era of three point games, any team trying to overhaul good teams this late in the year faces a serious hurdle, and for all the talk about how tough the Flames' finishing stretch is, one thing that isn't present is the chance to hold those other teams down. The Flames really don't have a sniff at catching any team above L.A.,only that last Avalanche outing is against a team in that range.
The next week is still, in theory at least, a chance for the club to make a move. Until they meet the likely President's trophy winners a week today, it's nothing but teams below them in the standings, starting in St. Paul this afternoon. They have no more margin for error than they did before Friday, not an inch more slack in the noose, so this afternoon's Wild encounter, like every game left, has the feel of must-win.

As with the win over San Jose, it seems likely that the players at the bottom of the roster will have to carry whatever hopes the Flames have for the duration. Mikael Backlund was in the center of the action at both ends of the ice, of course, but the offence that he created is the item of interest. He seems to be able to whip fourth liners at the moment, which given the make-up of the rest of the forwards is nothing to belittle. There's no news of Higgins or GlenX escaping sick bay any time soon, so the lines that we saw Friday may have a bit of sustain.

Solidity at the end of the roster is paramount due to the indifferent play of the first line. Jarome Iginla's fistic exploits aside, that line was in the ditch the other evening both in regards to scoring chances and Corsi. The H2H icetime numbers suggest some mix-and-match, with the top two lines swapping somewhat against the top two SJ lines. That sort of action also might well occur this afternoon, with Koivu and the Havlat-Latendresse pair in lieu of Pavelski and Thornton.

If that's the case, the good work of Niklas Hagman needs to continue. I'm in accord with what I suspect is the consensus opinion on the matter when I say that the return of Higgins, whenever that may be, should represent the end of Ales Kotalik's days in the top six rather than those of his Finnish teammate.

Why was Nigel Dawes sitting after the Olympics, again? I'm still utterly confused at the line of thinking that lead to that decision, and his play since his return has simply reinforced my feelings that he was a better option than the team gave him credit for being. I don't want to slag on Nystrom and Mayers too much, though. They done everything asked of them to this point. I don't doubt that a healthy roster would present a dilemma for Brent Sutter as he tries to choose his 12 forwards on any given night, but Dawes shouldn't be part of the discussion when it comes to potential spectators.

It appears that barring injury, the defence pairs are set, for better or worse. With the construct of those pairs, and the team as a whole, it's pretty clear that the Flames hope to out-chance the opposition when Mark Giordano is on ice. In the unlikely event of Steve Staios rediscovering the 2004 version of himself, that would be a dynamite plan, to be honest. Gio has spent the last two seasons showing that he's too good for most team's bottom sixes to exploit, and he can turn the team north on the attack against that sort of competition with regularity. Another outing with a +10/-3 EV scoring chance differential would be good, no?

Left Wing Lock still isn't showing a confirmed goalie for either team as I put this together, but with a short turn-around, maybe Toskala again? This game and the Boston game next Saturday afternoon seem the best, and most likely, opportunities to get Miikka Kiprusoff some rest before season' end. That sound you hear still isn't me humming "The Kid is Hot Tonight", though ;-)

Minnesota has fallen out of the race. Injuries and sub-par seasons from Backstrom and Havlat are the main culprits to my eye, but they're still a dangerous club as long as Mikko Koivu is around. The Finn is one of the league's better players, though somewhat under-valued in the wider community, and he and Andrew Brunette have had solid years. Martin Havlat recovered from his dreadful start right about in tandem with the arrival of Guillaume Latendresse, and that line has looked dangerous against the Flames on every occasion this year. The Wild bottom six isn't quite as deep as Calgary's, although Kyle Brodziak has played well enough that one wonders why the Oilers let him go in the summer. Oh, wait, they're the Oilers. That's what they do.

Snark aside, Niklas Backstrom's off season really is at the heart of the Wild's disappointing year, though. His .913 EV SV % is nowhere near where he's been in the recent past, and Minnesota is still in the top ten in terms of shots against, so this isn't a case of him being peppered every night. Four more years at 6 mil a season might feel like a gamble that Chuck Fletcher lost, but I said the same about Kipper this summer, so as always, goalies; who the hell knows?

The last encounter between these clubs occurred in a similar scenario for the Flames. A home win against a club well up in the standings was followed by a trip to the North Star State on a Sunday afternoon. That day, a good start and Jarome Iginla's hot stick carried the battle. That sort of scoring from number 12 would certainly be welcome, but in all honesty, if the Flames top-six can break even, they have an edge the further down the roster that might be enough.

Game time is 1 MT on Sportsnet West.