CHICAGO – The Calgary Flames are back in the Windy City for the second of two trips here this season and they're probably happy to get this one out of the way.
Calgary (14-14-4) will face the Chicago Blackhawks on Sunday at the United Center night (7 p.m.), which has been a particularly vexing venue for the Flames of late. They haven't beaten the Chicago Blackhawks (20-8-4) here in a regular-season game since March 16, 2008 -- a span of seven straight losses in this building.
The seventh loss in that stretch came on Nov.11 in a 4-1 defeat in which Chicago scored the game's first two goals and last two goals with goalie Ray Emery stopping 24 of 25 Flames shots. Calgary turned it around a week later at home with a convincing 5-2 win against the Hawks, but now the Flames are back in what's become a personal house of horrors. Emery is also in net again for the Hawks – who've won four straight games, are 8-1-1 in their last 10 and 6-0-1 in the month of December.
"Obviously we haven't played well enough here," Calgary coach Brent Sutter said after the Flames' morning skate on Sunday. "We've had games where we've had a couple of good periods and (then) you have a bad period. When you're playing a team like Chicago, that has the talent level and skill level they have, you can't afford not to be a 60-minute team. We've got to play hard here."
If they don't, the Flames are most likely looking at an eighth straight loss at the Madhouse on Madison Street.
"Our will and our compete level has to be higher than theirs and just go out there and play the game like it needs to be played and give (us) a chance," Sutter said. "That's the thing here. In the past, we just haven't gotten that full 60 minutes here. Tonight we have to have that."
One of the guys in particular who Sutter wants to see it from is 22-year old Swedish center Mikael Backlund – who has scored just two goals and added one assist in 17 games since missing a month with a broken finger. Sutter sent a message to Backlund by making him a healthy scratch on Friday in a shootout loss on the road against the Florida Panthers, so this will be a chance to see if it got through.
"I'm looking for (Backlund) to have more intensity in his game," Sutter said. "He's a young guy that needs to continue to improve and progress and we need that emotion level in his game. That's what makes him a good player. When he has it, he can be a real good player for us. When that drops off, he's not at the level that we need him to be. I took him out for a reason and now he's going back in for a reason."
Backland, who will likely center the third line between Blake Comeau and Lee Stempniak, said he's looking forward to proving his worth.
"I didn't play very good in Tampa (on Thursday) and from the end of last season to this year I haven't been playing as good as I can," he said. "I've got to get back to that and find a way to do it and compete hard. (Sitting out) is nothing you want to do. I'm really excited to get back now and show them I'm good enough."
Physical forward Daniel Carcillo isn't likely to play for Chicago, as he continues to recover from an undisclosed upper body injury that happened on Wednesday against the Minnesota Wild. That means the Hawks will likely go with a very similar lineup to what they used to beat the Anaheim Ducks on Friday night at home.
If so, 6-foot-8, 270-pound defenseman John Scott could make another appearance at left wing on the fourth line with Jamal Mayers at center and Andrew Brunette on the right side. Chicago didn't have a morning skate on Sunday, so it's a bit of a guessing game as to what the Hawks' lines will look like.
However, they did call up highly-rated forward prospect Jeremy Morin from the Rockford IceHogs on Sunday morning and he could draw into the lineup right away -- anywhere from one of the wings on the third line to somewhere on the fourth.
That fourth line came up big against the Ducks in Chicago's last game by creating the game's first goal with some good work in the offensive zone. It was capped by the third marker of the season for Mayers – who is one of the Hawks' free-agent signees brought in last summer to add experience and grit.
That's exactly what he's doing now and Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville is pleased to see it.
"He's been real good for us," said Quenneville, who also coached Mayers with the St. Louis Blues. "One of the needs we'd talked about was just some abrasiveness (and) some toughness. He gives us that. He's got a good attitude, gives us some experience (and) good leadership skills. He's been a real good fit for us. He's played very well in a lot of ways. (He's) useful at faceoffs, toughness (and) kills penalties. He's been a nice addition."