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Behind Enemy Lines: Previewing the Calgary Flames and Vancouver Canucks

The Canes finish the first “half” of their hockey season against two western Canada opponents and a few old friends.

NHL: Vancouver Canucks at Calgary Flames Sergei Belski-USA TODAY Sports

Calgary Flames

Tuesday, 9:00 p.m. at Scotiabank Saddledome

NHL: Colorado Avalanche at Calgary Flames Candice Ward-USA TODAY Sports

The reunion of sorts has been arranged, and the Carolina Hurricanes will take on former head coach Bill Peters for the first time on Tuesday night in Calgary. The night will be more than just a one-man reunion however, as two former Flames will be returning to Calgary for the first time since the multi-player trade between the two teams this past offseason. Micheal Ferland and Dougie Hamilton will return to Calgary, while Elias Lindholm, Noah Hanifin, as well as Derek Ryan will be facing off against their former Hurricane mates for the first time.

For their part, the new Flames have had a wonderful start to their time in Calgary as the Flames have jumped out to a 32-13-5 record, good for the best mark in the Western Conference. Featuring one of the most dynamic lines in all of hockey with Lindholm joining Johnny Gaudreau and Sean Monahan, the top line for the Flames has produced a staggering 197 points combined in just 50 games. With a bit of balanced scoring, including Norris Trophy candidate and team captain Mark Giordano on the blue line (52 points), the Flames have proven to have a deep and deadly roster as they cruise toward the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Still, matching up with the top line is a priority, and playing even with that grouping on the ice can go a long way towards stifling the Flames.

In net, the Flames have relied on a relative timeshare. Mike Smith is the veteran incumbent who has actually struggled for much of the season, producing only an .888 save percentage and allowing slightly over three goals per game in 24 starts. David Rittich is a 26-year-old late bloomer who has already set a career high with 26 starts, and has managed to post a .917 save percentage, while allowing just under two and a half goals per game. Despite his solid efforts, looking ahead to the trade deadline it is likely that goal-tending will be the area which the Flames see their biggest opportunity to upgrade for a potential playoff run. If the Flames can find someone to consistently produce above average play in net, they will certainly be a force to be reckoned with out West.

What to Watch For

  • Both teams have produced solid possession numbers in the Bill Peters tradition, as well as healthy shot differentials. Which team will dictate the action?
  • The Flames have not lost in regulation at home since December 22nd against the St. Louis Blues. Can Carolina deal them a defeat in the Flames’ last game of January?

Vancouver Canucks

Wednesday, 10:30 p.m. at Rogers Arena

NHL: Detroit Red Wings at Vancouver Canucks Anne-Marie Sorvin-USA TODAY Sports

The “first half” of the Hurricanes schedule finishes with a visit to Vancouver to take on the Canucks, in the second game of a back-to-back. Sebastian Aho will have a short flight down the coast to San Jose for the All-Star festivities, while his teammates will regroup and prepare for what many hope will be a second half push toward the playoffs.

The Canucks have managed to hang around in a wildcard position out West (23-21-6, 52 points) due to a decidedly weaker middle portion of the Western Conference. They have done so despite being, for all intents and purposes, in the midst of a retooling. Though they have added some random pieces in past years - such as Loui Eriksson and Jay Beagle - it was typically seen as unnecessary for a team that was building primarily around younger homegrown talent. Players such as Bo Horvat, Brock Boeser, and Calder-favorite Elias Pettersson certainly form the nucleus, but now the Canucks must decide how much of their plan they are willing to alter in order to take a crack at a postseason berth now. Do they cash in prospects to boost a team that is unlikely to be a true Cup contender? Does a three season playoff drought increased the pressure to qualify now that the opportunity presents itself? How the Canucks answer these questions will likely have a dramatic impact on their staying power this season, as well as their future plans.

Offensively, the Canucks have truly been a surprise as they currently rate sixth in the league on offense. Led by Pettersson 23 goals and 44 points, the Canucks have shown they are continuing to develop offensive weapons. With Pettersson, Horvat and Boeser leading the offense, along with solid contributions from Nikolay Goldobin and blueline offensive support from Jake Virtanen, the Canucks have 159 total points from those five players, all of who are age-23 or younger.

Jacob Markstrom continues to be the man in net for Vancouver, as the nine-year veteran has logged 36 starts this season with a solid .909 save percentage and 2.78 goal against. The Canucks have not been able to settle on a backup to date, and if they are looking for smaller acquisitions to stay afloat in the playoff chase, perhaps they will seek to add another backstop in case Markstrom tires or as injury insurance.

As the Canes seek to finish off their trip with authority, they will be playing on the second of a back-to-back against a rested Canucks team. Carolina must be sharp if they hope to come away with a happy close to the first half.

What to Watch For

  • Who will be in net? We know the Canucks are likely to use Markstrom, but will it be Petr Mrazekw or will Alex Nedeljkovic get his first NHL start in net for the Canes? Expect news after Tuesday’s game, but it is likely that the pair will split the final two games of the trip.
  • Sven Baertschi tallied a three-point night in Raleigh earlier this year in the Canucks 5-3 loss to the Canes. He will operate with Horvat on the second line, leaving a tough task for the Canes in stopping the top two lines for the Canucks.
  • After missing five games due to a knee injury, Elias Pettersson returned to the Canucks lineup Sunday and didn’t miss a beat, tallying a goal and an assist in their 3-2 win over the Red Wings.