EDMONTON — The timing couldn’t be better for a Calgary Flames team accused of lacking emotion and going through the motions.
A back-to-back against the Edmonton Oilers — fans or not — is the perfect tonic for a Flames team that’s taking much heat from the home fans and media.
Like this radio rant from former Flames defenceman Rhett Warrener, who went on Sportsnet 960 on Thursday and called for GM Brad Treliving to start moving out core pieces.
“You’re supposed to play with an urgency, an edge and a win-at-all-costs attitude — which (the Flames) don’t,” said Warrener, who did exactly that as a player. “So if I’m the GM … I have to blow it up. And I go after the biggest fish, I get him outta there, and it sends a clear message to the rest of the guys who don’t want to play that way.”
Well, maybe not the biggest fish. That would be Matthew Tkachuk, the one player who tends to bring some juice to the game.
As the best player on a Flames team with a mediocre 8-7-1 record — that just split a four-game series with the struggling Vancouver Canucks — Tkachuk knows it’s time for his team to show a heartbeat in this Friday-Saturday back-to-back against Edmonton.
“This is a huge moment in our season for us,” Tkachuk said Thursday. “We’re going to get up for this game – it will be impossible not to. I think we have to show to one another we’re going to be ready from the drop of the puck.”
Watch for Tkachuk to don the black hat and draw his mates into the game tonight — whether that’s with a big hit or a sneaky slew-foot. It’s his speciality, and that skill will be sorely needed by the Flames tonight against an Oilers team that is rolling along nicely at 10-8 — winners of seven of their past nine games.
It’s Mike Smith against Big Save Dave Rittich in goal, as Flames coach Geoff Ward goes with his struggling backup (just two starts and an .868 saves percentage) on the first end of a back-to-back.
Line ‘em Up
The biggest change in the Oilers lineup is Kyle Turris as a healthy scratch (more on that later). Dominik Kahun remains on the third line and defenceman Caleb Jones still can’t crack a defence corps in need of penalty killers, which isn’t his forte.
Here are the Oilers’ lines:
Nugent-Hopkins, McDavid, Puljujarvi
Ennis, Draisaitl, Yamamoto
Kahun, Khaira, Archibald
Neal, Haas, Chiasson
K. Russell, Larsson
We’re guessing a little bit more on the Flames’ lines, as they held an optional skate Friday. Coaches of struggling teams tend to hit the blender at some point — and it’s possible that six-foot-two Connor Mackey will replace 5-11 Nikita Nesterov on defence tonight — so for now this is how we’ll expect Calgary to line up.
Mangiapane, Lindholm, Tkachuk
Gaudreau, Monahan, Simon
Lucic, Backlund, Dube
Nordstrom, Bennett, Ritchie
Early and often
Edmonton leads the NHL with 24 first-period goals, while Calgary has scored just 10 (23rd). On the flip side, the team are tied for the fifth-most first-period goals allowed at 17.
With Rittich making a rare start, a 0-0 first period would go a long way toward stabilizing Calgary’s game. Pulling a goalie in the front end of a back-to-back is never the plan, not for a Flames team looking to get things turned around. Having Edmonton in town is the first ingredient in that recipe.
“Any rivalry game can be an advantageous thing to teams,” said coach Ward. “Guys on both sides … they get emotionally attached to it. And when you’re talking about inconsistency, that’s probably a big part of it: being able to attach yourself emotionally to the game that you’re in. Rivalry games usually allow you to do that fairly easily.”
Can the same Battle of Alberta intensity exist with no fans in the building, not to mention that Zack Kassian is on IR?
“Is it at the same intensity when it’s without fans? Probably not, but I don’t want to say that 100 per cent of the time,” Ward said. “You know how these games can get sometimes. That emotion can manifest itself in many ways.”
It had to happen
Let’s call it straight: Turris has been a major disappointment after signing as an unrestricted free agent with Edmonton. His feet are slow, his hands aren’t what they used to be and any thoughts of him being the Oilers’ third-line centre are fading as Jujhar Khaira and Gaetan Haas pass him on the depth chart.
Lately, they moved Turris to the wing — and now the press box, as James Neal draws into the Edmonton lineup tonight.
What does a head coach say to a veteran when he’s taking him out of the lineup?
“You explain why you’ve gone with the lineup you have,” said head coach Dave Tippett. “I’m a big believer in being honest with guys. ‘This is why we made the decision. This is what we’re doing.’ You have that conversation that stays between you and the player, and you move on.”