Toronto Maple Leafs vs. Calgary Flames: Game 66
Time: 9:00 ET
Location: Scotiabank Saddledome
Opponent SBNation Site: Matchsticks and Gasoline
Before this season started, if you’d asked most hockey fans which two Canadian teams were the strongest, the universal answer would have been the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Winnipeg Jets.
And yet, there the Calgary Flames are sitting second in the NHL. How have they achieved this feat? Well, we’ll get to that in a bit. Pregame music:
Zach Hyman - John Tavares - Mitch Marner
Andreas Johnsson - Auston Matthews - Kasperi Kapanen
Patrick Marleau - William Nylander - Connor Brown
Tyler Ennis - Frederik Gauthier - Trevor Moore
Morgan Rielly - Ron Hainsey
Jake Muzzin - Nikita Zaitsev
Martin Marincin - Igor Ozhiganov
It’s an unforgiving business for our undersized wingers at the bottom of the roster. Both Tyler Ennis and Nic Petan deserve to play, but it looks like they’re going to be in a rotation for now. Ennis cycles back in tonight; either way, having a fourth line that can pot an extra goal now and again is a nice feature of the modern Leafs. Beyond that, the forward lines hold steady pending the return of Nazem Kadri, who is on the trip, but there is no decision on when or if he’ll play.
No relief is in sight for our beleaguered defence group, so we’ll have to hope the current squad can continue to deliver. Justin Holl got his bimonthly game and will presumably never play again.
Johnny Gaudreau - Sean Monahan - Elias Lindholm
Matthew Tkachuck - Mikael Backlund - Michael Frolik
Sam Bennet - Mark Jankowski - Austin Czarnik
Andrew Mangiapane - Derek Ryan - Garnet Hathaway
Mark Giordano - T.J. Brodie
Noah Hanifin - Travis Hamonic
Oscar Fantenberg - Rasmus Andersson
I’m going to claim...not quite success...but part marks for a preseason prediction. I picked the Flames as a team that could surprise if they got another year of okay goaltending out of Mike Smith.
Well, Mike Smith has cratered, but the Flames’ season has recovered thanks to the surprise competence of “Big Save Dave” Rittich. I’m not sure whether he’ll sustain it for the long term or not, and the Flames keep giving Smith a fair number of starts and then watching as he does stuff like this:
Mike Smith did not do a good hockey play pic.twitter.com/jR7RWzPe5q— CJ Fogler (@cjzero) March 3, 2019
But, if the net situation holds steady, the Flames are to be feared. They’re a top-five shot share team, they’re solid in expected goals, and they have strength at every position. Their top liners, Johnny Gaudreau, Sean Monahan, and Elias Lindholm, are all having career years (especially Lindholm, who has already broken his previous career high by 27 points). They’re fast, they’re skilled, they’re not hopeless in their own end, and they can burn you a lot of ways, no pun intended.
The Mikael Backlund line matches up against strong opposition, and noted shitweasel Matthew Tkachuk gives them a lot of offensive punch too. That said, the real strength of this team is its defence.
With apologies to our beloved Mo Rielly: Mark Giordano is going to win the Norris Trophy, and he’s going to deserve it. Giordano, accompanied by T.J. Brodie, plays tough minutes and dominates them, putting up obscenely good shot numbers while limiting both quantity and quality against. Gio also racks up big counting numbers on the power play. For a guy who went undrafted and played his age-24 season in the KHL, he’s an incredible story, and he’ll be an anchor on defence for the Flames until age finally catches up with him (he’s 35.)
The Flames defence is strong on its second and third pairings too, featuring famed Guy Drafted After Mitch Marner Noah Hanifin and famed Guy Leaf Nerds Keep Wanting To Trade For Rasmus Andersson, respectively. Calgary doesn’t have offensive depth of a healthy Leafs squad, but as long as Big Save Dave holds up, they’re one of the best teams in the league.
This is a real test, after a week where the Leafs rolled over the Sabres and Oilers and only bothered to play one period against the Isles. Go Leafs Go!
Lineup updates, Frederik Andersen to start, Leafs lines as above.
Oliver Kylington in for Oscar Fantenberg, and David Rittich to start for the Flames.