Saturday, January 6, 2018

Saturday storylines: Matthews vs. Boeser

Today’s the day we officially hit the halfway point of the NHL season. We can no longer say “it’s early.” Now, it’s late. For some teams, probably too late. We’ve got nine games on the slate tonight, including one all-Canadian matchup. But we’ll start our roundup out West…

HNIC Game of the Night: Ducks at Flames

Tonight’s top game is a playoff rematch from last year’s opening round. It also may be a battle between two teams fighting for one spot in the tight Western race, as the Calgary Flames host the Anaheim Ducks in a Pacific battle with wild card implications.

The Flames recent struggles may have flown under the radar somewhat outside of Calgary, since they’ve yet to reach the sort of debacle-level depth we’ve seen in places like Edmonton, Montreal and Ottawa. But the Flames aren’t all that far ahead of those teams in the standings, and lately they’ve been spinning their wheels as the Western playoff contenders slowly pull away from them.

Looking back over the team’s last 15 games, it’s not hard to spot the pattern. Beginning in December, the Flames would lose three straight, win two, lose three more, win two again, and then drop another three in a row. Even with a handful of loser points sprinkled in, that’s not good enough to stay in the race, and it’s seen the Flames go from holding down the last wild-card spot to being three points out.

Now we’re back in the win phase of that cycle, with a pair of solid performances this week against the Blackhawks and Kings. That’s encouraging, but now it’s time for the team to break the pattern and keep the win streak going. They haven’t been able to do that in a long while.

So what’s going wrong? Some of the culprits are obvious. Despite two good games this week, the top line of Sean Monahan, Johnny Gaudreau and Micheal Ferland has largely cooled off after a strong start, and the rest of the lineup hasn’t been able to step up and compensate. The special teams have been poor, especially a penalty-kill running south of 80 per cent, and the team doesn’t spend enough time playing with a lead.

The Travis Hamonic trade still hasn’t paid off. As much as we hate to say it, neither has the Jaromir Jagr signing, with rumours swirling that he could be shut down or even released in the near future. And fans have been grumbling about coach Glen Gulutzan, particularly his continued commitment to rolling four lines even when trailing.

That’s a long list, but you could come up with a similar one for most teams. The NHL’s mushy middle is a crowded one these days, and the Flames are firmly stuck in it for the second straight year. There are worse places to be, but this isn’t what Calgary fans were hoping for heading into the season.

All of which brings us back to the Ducks. They’re in that middle, too, although lately they’ve looked like a team headed for better things. Getting healthy has helped, as a brutal stretch of first-half injuries have mostly cleared up. It’s probably too late for Anaheim to make a run at a sixth-straight division title, but escaping the playoff bubble seems like a realistic goal right now. They’d won three straight before dropping Thursday’s shootout in Edmonton, so they’re headed in the right direction.

The Flames are probably going to have to pass them to make the playoffs, so there should be plenty of urgency with a chance to gain some ground on home ice. Calgary hits the season’s midway point with tonight’s game, and they’d love to head into the second half with some momentum. To get it, all they’ll need to do is manage something they couldn’t back in last year’s playoffs: Win a game against the Ducks.

Marquee matchup: Auston Matthews Brock Boeser

There’s no point overthinking it this week. Matthews vs. Boeser is going to make for must-see TV.

The narrative writes itself. You’ve got last year’s Calder winner against this year’s mid-season favourite. Two-thirds of America’s top line in international best-on-best competition for the next decade. The big market golden boy who gets wall-to-wall coverage against the West Coast kid who was only discovered last week.

>> Read the full post at Sportsnet

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