Hockey

Well, you can’t say things aren’t at least getting interesting over on West Madison lately. After nothing but radio silence regarding the status of top prospect and A New Hope for the future Lukas Reichel was suddenly promoted to The Show on Wednesday. After initially saying he’d only be on the taxi squad, Coach King relented and tossed him in the lineup last night. What resulted was nothing spectacular, but also was not awful either.

How long he’ll be up on the main roster is unknown at this point, but I would hazard a guess that if he acclimates quickly and shows he belongs, the Hawks brass will be hard pressed to come up with an excuse to banish him back to Rockford. At least for the time being we have something to watch that might potentially be here in 3 years.

 

1/15 Vs. Ducks

Game Time: 7:30 PM CST

TV/Radio: NBC Sports Chicago, WGN-AM 720

Emilio Estevez Is A Moron: Anaheim Calling

 

Up until about 10 days ago, the Ducks were (somehow) the best team in what is admittedly a very barren Pacific Division in the Western Conference. How they got to that point nobody knows, but even after getting passed up by Vegas the meltdown everyone assumed was forthcoming has not shown. Part of the Ducks success has been their uncanny ability to make it into OT and secure the extra point before losing. They lead the entire Western Conference with the Loser Point with a whopping 7 of them thus far. To put that into perspective, they only garnered 9 OT loss points in the entirety of the 2019 season, so they’re on pace to blow that record out of the water.

The Ducks have very few familiar faces these days, other than Ryan Getzlaf’s giant one. The turnover on the front end has been what you would expect from a team that’s been sitting in the basement of the West the past 5 years. Troy Terry and Trevor Zegras lead the team in scoring, both high picks of the Ducks in the last few drafts. Columbus castoff Sonny Milano and his glorious hair seemingly has finally put it together after never living up to his 1st round pedigree in the O-H-I-O. The Hawks luck out, as two of Anaheim’s more dangerous forwards in Rickard Rakell and (to a lesser extent) Jakob Silfverberg will most likely miss Saturday’s tilt as Rakell hurt his shoulder during an awkward collision into the boards and Silfverberg’s got the Rona.

John Gibson is still here, and he’s about as exciting as white bread covered in mayo with his 2.64 GAA and .917 save percentage that is somehow good enough to get picked for the NHL All Star Game. Where he DOES stand out is when the Ducks are on the PK, which is the 3rd best in the league at suppressing shots. A lot of that comes from their very mobile defense, which denies zone entries with some of the best in the league. With the Hawks PP sinking further and further to the bottom of the league, the ability of the Ducks to flip the ice looms large.

 

1/17 @ Seattle

Game Time: 4:00 PM CST (Seriously)

TV/Radio: NBC Sports Chicago, WGN-AM 720

Johnny Depp Sucks: Davy Jones Locker Room

 

One of the few teams actually statistically worse than the Hawks, the Kraken are nevertheless providing some entertainment for their new fans in the Pacific Northwest. Jordan Eberle leads the team in points, which is somewhat impressive given his role as a #2 scorer for every team he’s ever been on. To be fair, some of that is due to the fact that Connor McDavid and later John Tavares were on his teams. He’s an excellent skater, and is able to create a shot for himself (which he needs to do quite a bit on this team). He’s also 31, which while not exactly young anymore is not so old that he can’t be the face of the franchise for the next few years while they attempt to cash in on all their draft picks.

On the back end they have…uhhh…Mark Giordano? And some other guys? Their goaltending is pretty terrible as well, with both Phillip Grubauer and Chris Driedger having GAAs over 3.30. The Kraken are pretty much what one would expect an expansion team to be, making Vegas truly the exception that proves the rule. They don’t do anything well, except play with a chip on their shoulder which can make them dangerous on any given night. Their fans are loud (mostly because they’re Seahawks fans which makes them insane criminals), and just happy to have a team. So they’ll probably drop 6 on the Hawks and toss the team bus into the Puget Sound.

Everything Else

@

Game Time: 9:00PM CST
TV/Radio: NBC Sports Chicago, CITY, CBC, SportsNet, SN360, WGN-AM 720
Which One Of My Garbage Sons Are You?: Flames Nation, Matchsticks & Gasoline

So coming into this Western Canadian swing of five games, the Hawks were probably going to need three regulation wins to keep themselves reasonably fighting for a wild card spot in the west. To this point they have gotten exactly zero points in the first three games, so tonight in Calgary and tomorrow back in Winnipeg are absolute must wins. Generally those go about as well for the Hawks as hoping an unattended dog doesn’t eat a burger off the kitchen counter, but they’re going to play them anyway.

Hockey

vs.

RECORDS: Flames 22-17-5   Hawks 19-18-6

PUCK DROP: 7:30

TV: NBCSN Chicago

COVERED IN HORSESHIT: Flames Nation

This week, the Hawks get a chance to put a couple things…well, not right but at least improve. One is their home record. They moved just over .500 with the win over Detroit, but they simply have to be better on Madison St. Second, they can get a couple wins over teams around them in the standings, which they can claim they are competing with for wildcard spots. They did get one over on the Flames last week, which was a departure, but generally this has been a sore spot for them. Calgary is visiting tonight and Nashville on Thursday, and those just happen to be two of the three teams between them and the final playoff spot.

Obviously, not much has changed with Cal and Gary since these two spent New Year’s Eve together (I assume loudly singing along to Lizzo like everyone else). They beat the Rangers at home on the 2nd and then snuck out of St. Paul with a shootout victory on Sunday. So the issues are basically the same. As we like to say around these parts, they can’t hit a bull in the ass with a banjo. They have the fourth-worst SH% at evens in the league, which belies the talent on display here through Monahan (Lisa needs braces…), Gaudreau, Tkachuk, et al. You still have to figure that will correct at some point and send the Flames toward the automatic spots in the Pacific, which they’re only two points behind and two of which are occupied by the Coyotes and Oilers. Most would guess those teams will deflate before the end of the season.

Still, something is more amiss up in Southern Alberta. This team was something of a possession monster under Bill Peters, which is something he just tended to do for his teams (as well as kick them and be racist toward them). This year, even before his dismissal, that’s not been the case. Some of it is Mark Giordano aging, and some of it is just no one else stepping up to fill in some of that gap. Recently they’ve split Gio and T.J. Brodie, perhaps to get some more push from a different pairing. But Brodie’s always been a bit lost without Giordano, so that’s a risk.

Another problem for them is a top line that just hasn’t fired at the pace they’re accustomed to. Monahan and Gaudreau have been point-per-game players before, and neither are there at the moment or anywhere close. Gaudreau especially seems to have eschewed getting to the middle of the ice, and is doing something of a mini-Getzlaf act on the outside. This has hurt Monahan’s game, as he thrived on the havoc Johnny Hockey used to cause in the offensive zone. They attempted to replicate this by moving Mikael Backlund to wing on the line and getting him in the middle, but that had middling results. Now they’re shuttling Elias Lindholm between 2C and 1RW, which is also having the benefit of making it clear what the Flames need to go get before the deadline.

Either way, this was a team that until the last meeting had given the Hawks fits, because it’s one of the many that is significantly faster than them. They weren’t much at the races against the Hawks for the first 30 minutes last Tuesday, allowing the Hawks a 4-0 lead. But once they realized they were about to be embarrassed, traffic flowed in only one direction and the Hawks were even somewhat lucky to get out of there with a rare regulation win. You can expect the Flames to be a little more attuned tonight.

Still, their goaltending has been a little wayward. Big Save Dave has given up 11 in his last three starts (including the Hawks game), and Cam and Magic Talbot gave up three at home to the Rangers. So maybe the Hawks can find some joy there.

As for the Hawks, I wouldn’t expect any changes. Robin Lehner wasn’t in the starter’s net at the morning skate and is still working through his minor leg problem. Look for him Thursday. There’s no reason to change any of the lineup, though Dennis Gilbert took a shot off the ankle at practice. But that couldn’t make him any slower. Maybe Fetch slides in for him, which whatever. After scoring his first NHL goal it would be heavily cruel to sit Dylan Sikura and lose the confidence he just gained. So Alex Nylander’s useless ass can stay in a suit.

As we’ve said, this is a part of the schedule the Hawks can make their season meaningful in. The Flames are a confused bunch, and the Preds even more so after firing their coach. The Ducks suck, and then they’ll get two games against either a rebuilding dreck like the Senators or yet another confused bunch in the Habs before having to try and catch the Leafs in Toronto. Either you are or you aren’t, and these next two weeks should tell us which. Even if you think you already know.

Hockey

It’s not fair to to Mark Giordano to merely label his Norris Trophy win last year a “Lifetime Achievement Award,” even if it had that feel. Gio had been one of the league’s best d-men for a while, certainly one of it’s premier puck-movers, and a spike in point-total was all that was required to get him an award he probably should have won. Had he not gotten hurt in 2014 he very well may have won that year, to match some truly bonkers relative metrics.

In reality, Giordano’s ’18-’19 wasn’t all that different from his ’17-’18, as in both he had utterly dominant possession numbers. Gio clearly took to the hiring of Bill Peters, who swept away the conservative, whatever the fuck tactics of Glengarry Glen Gulutzan or Bob Hartley before that and got the Flames going up the ice aggressively. Gio’s individual and team-rates are pretty much exactly the same over the two years. The difference was that last year the Flames shot 10% when Gio was on the ice, which was a huge jump from the 6.7% the year previous. So Gio ended up with 57 assists instead of 25, to go with 17 goals, which weren’t really out of line with what he’d done before.

Fair enough, Gio was really good last year and no one is upset that he has a Norris in his case now. What comes next? Well, there may have been a warning shot in last year’s playoffs.

In five games, Gio was clocked to the tune of a 44 CF% and a 45% xG%, both of which were over 10 points lower than his regular season marks. And they were mostly due to the tire tracks on his chest that Nathan MacKinnon was leaving over those five games, though to be fair to him he was only on the ice for two goals against and one for in that series. That doesn’t mean the chances weren’t flowing and they were mostly flowing the wrong way.

Something has carried over into this season. All of Gio’s metrics are way down, including his own attempts and chances. It would be easy to point to the sinking Flames ship as a whole, but his relative Corsi has tanked along with it. His relative xG% has stayed up though, so even if he’s spending more time in his zone he’s not conceding a wealth of great chances while doing it.

What gives? First, it’s hard to ignore that Giordano turned 36 right before the season, and you can’t keep the wolves of age at the door forever. Everyone loses a step, and Gio only need look at Duncan Keith his contemporary to see that. Keith’s fall came earlier, but Keith also played a ton more hockey at the top level than Giordano has.

It hasn’t helped that T.J. Brodie, Giordano’s partner for all of last year, is himself declining as he closes out his 20s. Brodie was always Gio dependent, but this year even that’s not enough. Gio’s numbers shoot up a bit when paired with younger Rasmus Andersson, and that’s what the Flames have gone to of late.

Going forward, the Flames might find themselves in the same position as the Hawks, needing to find a replacement for their stalwart while he’s still around. That was the hope for Andersson, but he hasn’t grabbed that yet. Neither has Oliver Kylington, who is in and out of the lineup. The Flames might have the option of going outside the organization for help, as they’ll have over $20M in space in the summer including both Brodie and Hamonic being free agents if they choose to remake their blue line.

Gio will be 37 then, and the time is now for the Flames given the ages of Gaudreau and Monahan and Tkachuk. It would be folly to trust the big minutes entirely to a 37-year-old for a Cup contender, which is what the Flames are built to be (even if they’ve spent the first part of this year being decidedly something else). Giordano’s one individual award won’t be enough for everyone.

Hockey

vs.

RECORDS: Hawks 17-17-6   Flames 20-16-5

PUCK DROP: 8pm

TV: NBCSN Chicago

FRIENDS OF CAL AND GARY: Flamesnation.ca

Cal and Gary would probably be way down the list of NHL cities you’d choose to spend NYE in, but the Hawks don’t get much choice as that’s what the schedule says. It’s one of two sojourns they have to make to Western Canada due to the utterly fucked nature of the NHL schedule, as they’ll kick off 2020 in Vancouver. Somewhat symbolic given what those trips used to mean in the first half of the decade and now don’t mean shit except to the few lunatics who still want to boo Duncan Keith. But we’ll get to that Thursday. Tonight, the Hawks will deal with one of the more confusing teams in the West.

The Flames were supposed to be amongst the glitterati. They did post the most points in the conference last year, and basically returned the same team minus Mike Smith and his amazing powers to turn everything he touches into barf. They had a solid backup this time around in Cam And Magic Talbot to back up Big Save Dave Rittich. They didn’t really add much to it, but steps forward from Oliver Kylington (and his weirdly pronounced name) and Rasmus Andersson were supposed to take pressure of the top of the defense. They still had a young, dynamic forward corps and depth.

And it all just kind of has been…there.

It’s turned around from earlier in the year, as the Flames were way out of a playoff spot to start but are now in one. But no one is reaching the heights of last year. Johnny Gaudreau and Sean Monahan are dealing with SH% problems as well as possession problems. Mark Giordano may simply have been broken by Nathan MacKinnon in the playoffs last year, and he’s also 36. And when he’s not very good, TJ Brodie isn’t good at all. Matthew Tkachuk and his gaping maw haven’t been as good away from Mikael Backlund and Michael Frolik, though he’s hardly been bad.

What the team is really suffering is the NBA Jam guy constantly screaming, “CAN’T BUY A BUCKET!” They have the fourth-worst SH% as a team overall, which has negated their more than acceptable goaltending. They aren’t creating a wealth of chances (21st in xGF/60) but you’d still expect them to do better than over 7% of finding the net. If that rebounds at all, the Flames should comfortably get back to the playoffs and probably pass the Coyotes and Oilers to do it.

They’ve also had the off-ice shenanigans with Bill Peters being outed as a scumbag and the switch to Geoff Ward. That seemed to alleviate some things but not all, as they’re 2-3-1 in the last six. It’s a team that just hasn’t really done anything that well so far this year, and until their top line starts to act like one, that might be the case all season. Lucky for them, their division is so bad they can just sort of float to or near the top.

For the Hawks, you wouldn’t expect too many changes tonight. Possibly Olli Maatta to come back in but they’ve been loathe to change a winning squad so we’ll see. Lehner looks poised to take the lion’s share of the starts the next little while, as he’s just playing better.

This has not been a friendly opponent for the Hawks of late. They’ve lost their last six against them, not beating them since the ’17-’18 season. Tends to be the case with teams that have a lot of speed and play like it, which the Flames at least used to do. The possession-dominant ways of Peters have gone away, as they’re only middling in that sense now. Giordano’s fade has something to do with that, and Hanifin is the only player to really improve from last year.

As we keep saying, if the Hawks want to make anything of this season it has to be right now. The schedule is somewhat kind, they’ve played better in the last two (at least most of them) and so this is the time to get on a roll. But then, we say that a lot, don’t we?

Note: I may be on the Twitter feed for part of this, or not at all. And any recap will be in the morning, if any of us are in any condition to watch this thing tonight. You know how it goes. 

Everything Else

How do you say goodbye to something you barely knew was there?

Sure, Calgary was the West’s #1 seed, and you probably treat that revelation with an, ‘Oh…riiiight,” response. You knew it, somewhere in the back of your mind, and then forgot it, much like whether or not there was cream cheese in the fridge. You’re just as likely to buy more and then come home to realize you have even more cream cheese you’re probably not ever going to get to. And that’s the Flames. They’re in the fridge, but you always forget, and they’re just in the door until they go green.

Honestly, Calgary is the Canadian team that makes up the numbers. They’re not hilariously run and bad like the Senators or Canucks or Oilers. Their fans don’t make the spectacle of themselves that Toronto’s or Winnipeg’s do. They’re not constantly crying for attention and think they invented the sport like Montreal. They’re just there, kicking the horseshit around their town and not really bothered. Oh sure, they’ll have an arena debate every few months just to remind everyone they’re still alive and maybe act like a big boy. But that’s about it.

Oh, how they tried to make their goalie failures everyone’s problem. But they didn’t do it as well as San Jose, and everyone was like, “No, we already have a contender with no goalie in the fridge, thanks.” They tried to claim that Matthew Tkachuk’s upcoming restricted free agency was a real problem, but the Leafs had that market cornered. And they tried to tell you how good Sean Monahan was…until he died right before the first round. Sky point. So they’re left to try and scream about how Mikael Backlund is the most underrated player in the league, and you look at people spending time talking about Mikael Backlund and you can’t help but wonder who hurt them in life.

There was the Mark Giordano Lifetime Appreciation Tour, and his fellow Norris finalists all might be done in the first round. It’s a cursed award. They retired Jarome Iginla’s number. It was an emotional night for those in Calgary to praise their team’s greatest ever player and an emotional night for everyone outside of Calgary how such a gift of a player could toil in a city that was such an afterthought for so long. Connor McDavid watched the ceremony and wept, knowing there was no way his career would go any differently. And he probably won’t even get a couple gold medals to make it better. Enjoy that trade to Carolina when you’re 35, Run CMD. But that’s not why you called.

The Flames were actually entertaining for a while. They spent the first part of the year just not playing defense, and then wondering why Mike Smith couldn’t bail them out. Recurring theme with Bill Peters teams. Then they seemed to figure it out with either Big Save Dave or Smith, except the former went back to being a goalie you’d never heard of and Mike Smith was Mike Smith.

Then Peters, in his first playoff series as coach, showed up with a plan that consisted of, “Uh, do some shit?” It didn’t contain any notes on how to contain Nathan MacKinnon, who proceeded to mirror Nene when he made Joakim Noah’s Defensive Player Of The Year Award look like the dumbest possible decision in NBA history. Nene! You go ahead and accept that Norris there, Gio, though some one is going to have to hold it for you while you’re in the burn unit. Also, Nate went that way.

Of course, the most interesting thing about the Flames was that after all the kvetching about Smith or from Smith, he was clearly the Flames best player in the 1st round. Perhaps they were just too surprised and kept letting the Avs through to barrage Smith to make sure what they were seeing was real. “No, this can’t be right, not after the last six months. Here, J.T., why don’t you go on through and try again and we’ll sort this out.”

Peters answer for all this was…well, we’re still waiting for an answer. Always has to be encouraging for a team and organization when your coach throws his hands in the air right after his team is eliminated when asked what happened. It’s not like his job to know or anything. This is exclusive to hockey coaches. Imagine an NBA coach trying this. Steven A. Smith would turn puce. But hey, Bill is a good Canadian boy so it can’t be his fault he doesn’t know. Hockey’s weird!

What happened was his defense is slow, and while his top six is quick, it’s not MacKinnon quick. And Monahan died. Other than that, everything is fine.

And this is the team they’ll basically have going forward, partially thanks to James Neal having four years left on his deal. Stationary shooters age so well in a speeding-up league, it’s a wonder this didn’t work. Tkachuk will gobble up most of the space, and if he’s anything like his old man will spend the rest of the time gobbling up whatever is on the table in front of him. The Dreaded Laramie is going to become The Bloated Laramie.

So toodles, Flames. You were here, I guess. No one’s sure why. And you still will be in the seasons to come. And no one will know why then, either. It’s the role you play. Sadly, you’re basically the Oilers or Islanders but only a quarter of the faded glory. Nice threads, though. You’ll always have the Oilers to laugh at, and the Canucks, in your weird little Western Canada cabal. It’s probably going to suck when Seattle comes in and is immediately better than all of you. Probably should have done something anyone can remember. Maybe you can get Daymon Langkow to punch Iggy on his lawn again.

Everything Else

These could be the most NHL playoff-iest of the NHL playoffs. One division winner, THE division winner, was kneecapped in four games. One is trailing 3-1. The Predators laid an egg big enough last night to feed a few villages. Even the Caps are somewhat lucky to be up 2-1 on the Canes, and were just trucked to the tune of managing all of two shots in the final 40 minutes. If you love an underdog, this is for you. Even the Islanders, though the higher-seed, were probably not the bookies’ favorite heading into that series. That’s what some people love about the NHL Playoffs, though it doesn’t happen as often as you’d think. Last year, the chalk pretty much won every first round series, and arguably every second round series. Even if the Caps getting by the Penguins was a surprise simply because of history and the connotations of the two in our heads, they were the higher seed.

But still, while we can debate whether the actual results are good or prove anything at all or if they render the regular season even more meaningless than we thought, the undercurrent here is that the two results in the books and one or two others on the cards have been a result of negative, boring-ass hockey. Barry Trotz teams are successful, they are not entertaining. The Nassau Coliseum (where they come to see ’em) might make it seem like they are, but you sat through enough Predators games in the day to know. I don’t expect or want Isles fans to care. The rest of us can, though.

The Jackets aren’t quite the same bore, as they at least turned their trap up to 11 and moved it up the ice, but it was still a trap. The results were stunning and enough to convince you the process was actually lively, but believe me it wasn’t. The Stars, giving the Preds everything they want and more, are possibly playing the most boring and conservative style still left, and will happily tell you so.

It’s sports, not television, and no team is under any obligation to do anything other than what’s best for their team. That’s all their fans care. But I can care, and I do, because I’m not invested thanks to whatever it is they do on Madison St. these days.

Which is why the best series to watch, and despite all the scary undertones for Hawks fans, has been the Avalanche’s utter destruction of the Flames the past two games. Oh sure, last night’s game went to OT, and if not for Phillip Grubauer’s spot-on Cristobal Huet ’09 impression, the Flames walk out of Denver with a tied series and home-ice back. They also gave up 52 shots, 45 at even-strength. That’s betting your ass kicked. More so when it’s the second straight game they’ve surrendered 50+ shots.

And the Avs have gone the opposite way of the Isles or Jackets. They’ve just turned everyone loose, seeing a kind of slow Calgary defense beyond the top pair. And they don’t have to worry about the top pair, because Nathan MacKinnon has ground their bones to make his bread all series. Whereas the Jackets didn’t bust over 25 shots at evens until Game 4, the Avs have done it the past three games and by some distance. They have a goalie playing well, so they’re not too concerned about needing him from time to time, and have bet that if they turn up the heat on every game, the Flames can’t hang. And they haven’t been able to.

They even took their defenseman out of college, Cale Makar, and figured by replacing Samuel Girard with him they could even play faster. He played 20 minutes last night. They don’t care about his age or experience, he just helps them do what they want to do.

After a season of a jump in offense, goals, and overall fun, it stood to reason there would be a group of coaches looking to snuff that out when things got important. It’s how this always goes, and that’s not exclusive to hockey. Look at the last Super Bowl for evidence of that.

Sure, it portends to a future of the Avs pounding on whatever process the Hawks come up with in the next few years, but that’s life. Perhaps the reputations that Trotz and Tortorella have to uphold play a part, whereas Jared Bednar doesn’t have one yet. But rare is the coach who shows up in the playoffs and says, “We can go faster.” Rare is the NHL coach who has no compunction about tossing a 20-year-old into the playoffs when he was in college last week, no matter how special the prospect he is.

Mostly, Bednar has not coached out of fear of what might happen to them, but out of expectation what could happen for them. That is refreshing, and the kind of thing that should be rewarded. I may hate Vegas, and I do, but that’s a speed of series we should probably all want to catch.

Until they run into Trotz, of course.

Everything Else

vs.

SCHEDULE

Game 1 in Calgary tonight, 9pm

Game 2 in Calgary Saturday, 9:30

Game 3 in Denver Monday, 9pm

Game 4 in Denver Wednesday, 9pm

At the top, this one seems the most cut and dried of the West. Then again, we said that about the Jackets and Lightning, and even though that might still turn out that way after a blip, this is hockey after all and rarely does anything work out as it appears it should. It is the unruly toddler of sports. And the Flames have the one crack that can make any series turn goofy, and that’s goaltending, or lack thereof. The Avalanche’s time is next year and beyond, but are certainly good enough to walk through the door if Mike Smith keeps opening it and kicking them in the direction. Our last preview, let’s go.

Goalies: Phillip Grubauer was pulling a mini-Jake Allen for the first half of the season, as the Avalanche wanted him to have the job but he just wouldn’t take it. He and Semyon Varlamov were kind of Duck-Season-Rabbit-Season’ing it for the schedule’s first half. And then right about the time the Avs ruined the Hawks playoff hopes the first time, Grubauer finally relented and accepted, and he’s been brilliant ever since. A .955 in March would certainly qualify as that.

The problem for Grubs is he’s been here before, a year ago exactly in DC. And he hacked up a hairball, Braden Holtby took over, and you know the rest. Maybe that experience steels him for this. But until you do it in the postseason, everyone’s going to ask if you’re the guy or not. So he’s got some history to shed.

The history Mike Smith has to shed is much more recent, and much worse. He’s been a bitchy, wandering suckbag most of the season, and that’s when he could be bothered to actually be in the net. And the leash will be short, which probably will only make him even more of a malcontent. Considering how hard the Avs forecheck, he’s going to fuck up with the puck once in the first two games, but of course it won’t be his fault. This is the first team Smith has played on that mattered since 2012, and we all remember what happened then. But that was a long time ago with a much younger man. No amount of dives are going to save him this time.

If he fumbles it, or more to the point fumbles more than the Flames are already expecting him to, David Rittich will get tossed into the fire as a savior but with no safety net. Rittich faltered badly in the season’s back end after screaming to get the job full-time in the first portion. The Flames might just be Cup-worthy everywhere else, but they are depending on a moody dipshit and an untested rookie to navigate these seas. Hey…the 2010 Hawks did it?

Defense: The Avs defense will be good, possibly better than that, when Cale Makar and possibly what they add in the draft with Ottawa’s pick arrive next year. I still remain unconvinced of this one. Tyson Barrie rules, and beyond that I just can’t see it. Erik Johnson has made a career out of being fine and really unable to be picked out from the scenery. It’s not that it’s a bad defense, it just doesn’t distinguish itself, even if the numbers are middle of the pack to slightly better. At some point, tossing Ian Cole (BAYBAY!) over the boards consistently has to end in paper cuts and stains.

The Flames on the other hand have this year’s likely Norris winner in Mark Giordano, even if it’s more of a lifetime achievement award than for a career season (though it is that offensively). Going back to play with Gio has revitalized T.J. Brodie, which is a huge shock I’m sure. Travis Hamonic has had a bounce-back season. The third pairing is either some very green kids in Andersson or Kylington, or some very puce (sure?) vets in Fantenberg or Prout. But you can hide a third pair in the playoffs if you have to.

Forwards: The Avs are getting Mikko Suave back, and they’ll probably keep him on a line away from Nathan MacKinnon and Gabriel LaxativeLog. I doubt that lasts long. The Avs are still one line, no matter that J.T. Compher looks like the lovechild of Rick Tocchet and Jim Brown against the Hawks. Carl Soderberg…whatever. That line can do a whole lot of things, but it’s probably going to have to do them all in this series if the Avs are going to pull the upset.

The Flames have no such problems. They have two to three lines, assuming they’re still not trying to make Michael Frolik feel like the dog who just left a puddle on the floor. Gaudreau and Monahan are as good of a combination as you’ll find, and you’ll have to silence your cellphones, hold your applause, and shut your damn mouths to WALK WITH ELIAS. Whether Backlund and Matthew Tkachuk get Frolik as a third or not, that’s still the most dominant possession line in hockey with some of the worst zone starts. In the playoffs, that should be an enormous weapon. The Flames fall off after that, and if they don’t come out of the West this will probably be the area they address immediately after goalie. Sam Bennett is a useful third center, who doesn’t have to do the checking things because Backlund does. Garnet Hathaway has been a contributor. Mark Jankowski as well, but as third lines go you’ll see better in the playoffs.  But it is more than the Avs have.

Prediction: The Flames goaltending can overturn them at any time. And one bad game at home could see a pretty young team with little playoff experience get jittery in a hurry. And yet this team amassed 107 points without a goalie. Against a more sustained attack, it would be a bigger problem. But the expectation is that Giordano and Brodie can play MacKinnon to even close to a standstill, and from there the Flames are just better with more weapons. Their goaltending may get them. It’s just not going to be here.

Flames in six. 

 

Everything Else

Make sure I got that one right, as a real horse-racing fan should. Anyway, there’s really less than a quarter of the season left, but now’s as good of a time as any to see who should rack up the hardware at the end of the year, though most probably won’t. As always, a metric-look is usually involved here.

Hart Trophy (MVP) – Nikita Kucherov

Yes, I know. Patrick Kane has a case. He’s playing with worse players and his numbers aren’t all that far off from Kucherov’s. He is single-handedly keeping a dogshit team barely relevant, and without him the Hawks would be a shoe-in for top spot in the lottery and the Hawks would be a monolith to sadness and confusion (most of these arguments also apply to Connor McDavid, but let’s leave that for a second. And the Oilers are that monolith). That’s all well and good and if you say that I won’t tell you you’re wrong. But like we said at every other checkpoint on this, 130 points is 130 points like a football in the groin is a football in the groin. Kucherov is more a reason those other players are really good than vice versa. These things just don’t have to be that hard.

Vezina Trophy (Best Goalie) – John Gibson

Next week, this won’t be the case and you’ll probably have to give it Vasilevskiy. That is unless Gibson returns and kills it for the season’s last month. But no one was facing more attempts and better chances than Gibson, and until recently no one was turning more of them away at a better rate than he should have been, according to expected-save-percentage. He dropped off the last month, crumbling under the weight of a fucking quarry that Carlyle and the Ducks put on him, but if he can put up a good last month it should be his. It won’t be, and the Lightning will add this to the haul of trophies they’re likely to get. Gibson should get it because the Ducks will have actually killed him by April 1st and it’ll make a nice marker for his grave.

Norris Trophy (Best Defenseman) – Erik Karlsson
This is going to be Mark Giordano‘s Lifetime Achievement Award, and I don’t really have a problem with that. And Karlsson’s recent bout of ouchiness would probably preclude him anyway. But on a good possession team to begin with, Karlsson stands out over everyone with how much more he pushes his team forward than they do without him. It’s basically him and Dougie Hamilton. Karlsson can’t buy a bucket for himself, shooting less than 1% somehow at even-strength. But he’s still in all the right places and in fact he’s getting more shots for himself than he has before. He’s going to drag this team with its shitty goaltending to a conference final at least by the dick, and everyone will probably shrug because we’re so accustomed. He’s a goddamn treasure.

Rod Langway Award (Best defensive defenseman, doesn’t actually exist) – Niklas Hjalmarsson

Boy, that hurts. But no one gets buried in their zone more to start than Hammer and OEL and according to the metrics, no one does a better job of limiting chances at a rate above their team’s than Hjalmarsson. Even though you’ve won half the battle against them by starting in the right end, they’re not allowing you any chances. So this didn’t go according to plan at all.

Calder Trophy (Rookie) – WHO WANTS TO WALK WITH ELIAS?!

Again, I only put this in so my one Canucks fan friend doesn’t yell at me, because otherwise I don’t care.

Selke Trophy (Best Defensive Forward) – Jesperi Kotkaniemi

Yep, a fucking teenager. But no forward limits expected goals and attempts against at less of a rate than any of his teammates than this kid. They’re still going to give it to Patrice Bergeron, which like, fine, but at some point you have to find someone new. And it’s going to be Kotkaniemi. In two years you just watch, every Canadiens fan and media is going to stamp their feet and wet themselves until he gets the recognition that Bergeron does simply because they can’t have the Bruins having that over them, and everyone will go along with it just to get them to shut up. Except this time they’ll be right.

Everything Else

 vs. 

RECORDS: Flames 26-13-4 (1st in Pacific)   Hawks 16-21-7 (6th in Central)

PUCK DROP: 7:30

TV: NBCSN Chicago

FRIENDS OF CAL AND GARY’S: FlamesNation.ca

It’s a cruel world, this NHL. After the Hawks played what was maybe their best game of the season in Pittsburgh last night, outplaying the hottest team in the league, their reward is to wheel it back out there again tonight against another first-placed team who has been waiting for them. And one that’s already beaten them twice this season. It ain’t all waitin’ on you, as Sheriff Tom Bell’s brother told him at the end of No Country For Old Men. 

All seems pretty right in the world for the Calgary Flames, who are at least almost all of the way pivoted to David Rittich in goal, which was their biggest issue. The top line has gone absolutely bonkers, with all of Johnny Gaudreau, Sean Monahan, and Elias (I SAID WWE STANDS FOR….) Lindholm in the top-20 in scoring in the league. Matthew Tkachuk is having quite the free agent hear with 49 points his own damn self from the second line, where Mikael Backlund continues to beat anyone about the head and face possession-wise. They even get contributions from the bottom-six, even if James Neal will soon require a Hazmat treatment to be around.

The defense is the real key, where Mark Giordano‘s normal Norris-worthy year has been joined by a rebound from T.J. Brodie, and a bigger rebound from Travis Hamonic on the second-pairing. They’re even letting child Rasmus Andersson freewheel on the third-pairing, and he’s got wheels for days (and you got ass for weeks yeah yeah yeah).

Earlier in the year, the Flames were having defensive issues, even with that personnel. That seems to have cleared up a little, as only the Sharks give up less attempts per game at evens, and they’ve improved to middle of the pack in xGA/60 from near the bottom where they were. Any middling goals-against numbers are mostly the result of having Mike Smith and his arms that don’t work on the roster, and insisting on playing him any other time than when Rittich has the plague. As with most Bill Peters led teams, their metrics are glowing and this all appears to be real.

Whether the Flames can negotiate their way far in the spring depends on if Rittich is the real deal when it really counts, and if they can finish top of the division. Do that, and you only have to beat one of the Knights or Sharks to get to the West final. Don’t and you have to go through both, and that’s going to be a real trick.

As for the Hawks, they’ll turn to Collin Delia tonight, and you’d have to imagine given the Flames firepower he’s going to be awfully busy. In his limited NHL experience, this is about as good of an offense he’s seen, barring the uncaring Jets at the end of last season. Sure, the Avs have their top line but the Flames have that and then more. So this will be an interesting test, especially behind a tired team.

Shouldn’t be any other changes. Would expect Chris Kunitz to stay in the lineup after not being a toxic waste dump last night. Henri Jokiharju did fly back to Chicago last night and could play but I think Wednesday is more likely. They’d want at least one practice or morning skate, if only to figure out where exactly he slots. But you never know. Other than that, Drake Caggiula makes his home debut.

If the Hawks are going to get anything out of this one, they’ll need the special teams just like they did last night. The Flames aren’t a great PK team, and their power play is not as good as you’d think given what they have on it. A power play goal or two are close to a requirement.

 

Game #45 Preview Suite

Preview

Spotlight

Q&A

Douchebag Du Jour

I Make A Lot Of Graphs

Lineups & How Teams Were Built