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Five things to watch when the Calgary Flames take on the Minnesota Wild
1. Tight defense
This game features two of the league's best defensive teams, particularly of late. It feels strange to type that following a game in which Calgary allowed six goals but the numbers don't lie.
Over the last 10 games, the Flames have given up just 21.64 scoring chances per 60 minutes of 5v5 play. That's good for 2nd in the NHL. The only team ahead of them? Minnesota. The Wild allowed 20.73 chances/60 during that period. Both teams also rank top-5 in attempts against/60. In other words, neither side has given up much in terms of shot volume or shot quality.
If recent play is any indication, we shouldn't expect a back-and-forth barnburner.
2. An under-the-radar top line
For the second time in as many games, the Flames will take on an elite line that doesn't get nearly enough credit for how good it is.
The trio I'm referring to, of course, features Jason Zucker, Eric Staal, and Mikael Granlund. In 185 minutes together this season, they have out-scored opponents 12-5 while controlling 54% of the shot attempts and 71%(!!!) of the high-danger looks. They are dominant and borderline matchup proof.
Mikael Backlund, Matthew Tkachuk, and co. will have their hands full trying to slow them down.
3. James Neal's cold streak
Calgary's marquee free agent signing continues to struggle to produce anything offensively, which is what he was brought in to do. Neal has failed to register a 5v5 point in 14 consecutive games. He's not creating high-danger shots either having tallied six over his last 12 games (.50 per). For perspective, he averaged .69 high-danger chances per game a year ago and .77 the season prior. His season total (.61 per) isn't bad but what's worrisome is that number is trending downwards. Calgary is scoring a ton right now but their top line can't be relied upon for numerous goals every night. At some point, they'll go cold and others will have to step up. The Flames need Neal to be one of those guys.
4. Calgary's PP vs Minnesota's PK
Calgary continues to run scorching hot on the man advantage, having scored 17 times over the last 17 games. I thought they were in a cool-down spot against the Blue Jackets yet they still managed to convert three times.
Tonight they draw another tough matchup against a Wild team that sits 3rd in goals against/60 and 8th in expected goals against/60 while down a man.
The good news is Calgary is a top-5 team in terms of drawing minors and the Wild take an above average amount. The Flames will likely need volume to be there if they're going to make any noise on the PP.
5. Contrasting styles
The Flames play a high-event game – they rank 7th in 5v5 expected goal pace (5.09 per 60) – that allows their speed, skill, and new-found depth to shine through. The Wild take a much different approach. They play a grind-it-out, methodical style and don't tend to get involved in many shootouts. At 5v5, they sit 26th in xG pace sandwiched between Buffalo and St. Louis.
Calgary, like Minnesota, is rested and they can control the matchups on home ice. It'll be interesting to see if they can force the Wild out of their comfort zone.
Here are the projected lineups:
Johnny Gaudreau - Sean Monahan - Elias Lindholm
Matthew Tkachuk - Mikael Backlund - Sam Bennett
Andrew Mangiapane - Derek Ryan - James Neal
Austin Czarnik - Mark Jankowski - Garnet Hathaway
Mark Giordano - T.J. Brodie
Noah Hanifin - Travis Hamonic
Oliver Kylington - Rasmus Andersson
Minnesota (via dailyfaceoff.com)
Jason Zucker - Eric Staal - Mikael Granlund
Zach Parise - Mikko Koivu - Charlie Coyle
Jordan Greenway - Joel Eriksson Ek - Nino Niederreiter
Marcus Foligno - Eric Fehr - Matt Hendricks
Ryan Suter - Jared Spurgeon
Jonas Brodin - Mathew Dumba
Nick Seeler - Greg Pateryn
Puck drop is just after 9:00 eastern and can be seen on SNW and FS-N.
Numbers via NaturalStatTrick.com and Corsica.Hockey
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