It’s been a while since a game between the Calgary Flames and Vancouver Canucks affected the playoff picture in such a minuscule way. Entering action tonight, the Flames sit 11 points back of the final wildcard spot in the Western Conference while the Canucks are only slightly closer at eight points back. Over the last number of years, at least one of these teams has been in the playoff picture this late in the season, so to see the circumstances surrounding this matchup is somewhat surprising. Nonetheless, these two rivals tangle again tonight as Vancouver makes their final trip to Calgary this season (7 pm, Sportsnet West and Sportsnet 960).
Calgary Flames 25-28-3, 6th Pacific Division
There’s plenty to sink your teeth into when it comes to Calgary’s lineup tonight. First and foremost, it’ll be the season debut for Wotherspoon tonight as he was recalled from Stockton earlier in the day. Wotherspoon joins the group in the wake of another blueline injury; the team will be without Ladislav Smid tonight with an upper body injury suffered on Wednesday night. There’s no word on the severity of Smid’s injury, but the team has placed him on IR to make room for Wotherspoon’s activation. Wotherspoon has played 40 games in the American League this season with four assists; Heat Head Coach Ryan Huska has spoken glowingly of Wotherspoon’s game in recent weeks, this sounds like a very deserving recall. Calgary will also be without Kris Russell on the back end as he’ll miss his third straight game with a lower body injury.
Up front, the Flames will move Bennett to centre for the first time since late October. Head Coach Bob Hartley says they would have liked to move Bennett to the middle earlier in the season but didn’t because of the situation they were in fighting for a playoff spot. Now 11 points back, giving Bennett another try at centre probably makes a little more sense. Bennett’s move to centre pushes Markus Granlund to the press box along with Brandon Bollig. Calgary will also bring Bouma back in the lineup after he missed Wednesday as a healthy scratch.
The Flames are coming off a frustrating 5-3 loss at the hands of the Minnesota Wild on Wednesday night. It was a game where Calgary controlled most of the play at even strength and had the balance of the scoring opportunities, but ended up having to fight from behind virtually all night. It seemed like every time the Flames made a mistake it ended up in the back of their net. Part of that is due to some key and poorly timed mistakes in their own end. Part of that also came down to goaltending, though. Jonas Hiller wasn’t able to give Calgary any key saves on Minnesota’s best scoring opportunities, and that needs to happen sometimes. There weren’t necessarily any bad goals, but seemingly every puck that realistically could have gone in did go in. That’s a tough way to play.
Speaking of the goaltender, the Flames are going to go with Jonas Hiller for a fourth straight game and sixth time in seven contests. Hiller has struggled in his last three starts and has allowed 12 goals on 75 shots; that equates to a rough 0.840 save percentage. There’s no doubt Hiller needs to be better and he really needs to embrace the opportunity he’s been given. Hiller does not have a contract for next season and, as we’ve seen a lot of lately, there are no guarantees once free agency opens. Hiller sits 8-7-1 on the season with a 3.27 goals against average and a 0.886 save percentage.
Vancouver Canucks 22-23-12, 5th Pacific Division
The free fall continues for the Canucks who lost for the seventh time in nine games last night against the Anaheim Ducks. Vancouver managed just 21 shots in a 5-2 setback at Rogers Arena and now the team now sits 8 points adrift of a wildcard spot and a stunning 11 points out of a Pacific Division spot. With 101 points, the Canucks had the fifth highest point total in the West last year and earned home ice in the playoffs; one year later they’re has them with minuscule playoff chances in February. Vancouver now sits 2-6-1 over their last nine games which has dropped them from in the hunt to long shot territory.
Vancouver went with the lines above last night against the Ducks and will likely show a similar look tonight. The Canucks are without two very key ingredients in their lineup right now. On the back end, Alex Edler is on the shelf with a fractured fibula which robs Vancouver of their best defenceman. Edler averages a team high 24:27 of ice time per game which is almost three minutes more than the Tanev who is the team’s next highest minute eater. Up front, Brandon Sutter is out with a broken jaw which is just a part of his nightmare season. The first year Canuck has played just 20 games with his new team thanks to two major injuries. This broken jaw follows a sports hernia that kept him out for 33 games between mid-November and early January.
After Ryan Miller allowed four goals on 32 shots last night, Vancouver will turn to Jacob Markstrom in net tonight. Miller has seen more ice time than Markstrom this year, but the latter has the better numbers to this point. Markstrom is in his first full season with the Canucks after being acquired by the team from the Florida Panthers in last year’s Roberto Luongo trade. Markstrom sits 9-6-4 with a 2.44 goals against average and a 0.921 save percentage.