As many expected, 2013-14 has been a year of transition for Calgary. Gone are the likes of Jarome Iginla, Miikka Kiprusoff and Jay Bouwmeester, and the Flames are awaiting a new generation to take over. Only three players on Calgary’s roster are over the age of 30, while six skaters are 24 or younger; the core of their new generation is coming along, led by the likes of 2013 first-round pick Sean Monahan, Sven Baertschi, Max Reinhart and others. In the meantime, the Flames sit towards the bottom of the NHL’s rankings in most traditional team metrics, and have found wins difficult to come by in a very competitive Western Conference.
One of the bright spots in Calgary’s lineup has been the play and veteran leadership of new captain Mark Giordano. Despite missing 18 games earlier this season with a broken ankle, the defenseman is on track to put up career numbers in goals and points, and has helped guide the Flames through a very tough season. Giordano’s six power-play goals places him in the top five among NHL defensemen, and his 3:04 per game on the penalty kill paces the Flames defensive corps.
While the Blackhawks’ penalty-kill unit got off to a rocky start this year, it has not allowed a power-play tally in its past five games, a span of 14 attempts. Niklas Hjalmarsson (2:39) and Marcus Kruger (2:25) lead Chicago in shorthanded ice time per game, while Michal Handzus, Duncan Keith and Johnny Oduya all average over two minutes per game on the PK.
Tuesday marks the start of the Blackhawks’ six-game road trip before the league breaks for the 2014 Olympics on Feb. 9. Chicago went an impressive 6-1-0 on the seven-game “Circus Trip” in November, facing many of the same opponents that they will meet this time around the West Coast. That trip also included a stop off in Calgary, which the Blackhawks won 3-2 behind a two-goal effort from Patrick Kane.
Winger Jiri Hudler, the Flames’ leading scorer, is someone who knows the Blackhawks well, and has had success against them over the years. In 39 career games with Detroit and Calgary, Hudler has netted 28 points (7G, 21A) against the Blackhawks—his best output against any opponent. Since joining Calgary in 2012, Hudler has been an anchor of the Flames’ top six, most recently joined with center Mikael Backlund and Lee Stempniak on the top line.
The Blackhawks hit the road having dropped their last three decisions, but they have beaten Calgary in four of their last five meetings. Without the benefit of the last line change, the Blackhawks will have to simplify their game plan and get back to the basics of their puck possession game and excellent defensive positioning. If they can do that, they should start out this long road trip on the right foot.