By Kyle Shohara
Morning Skate Photos
Could tonight be a preview of what’s to come in mid-April? Only time will tell, but if the playoffs started today, it would be Ducks-Flames in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
A lot can happen over the next three months, especially for the Flames, who currently sit one point ahead of Los Angeles for the second wild card spot in the Western Conference. But it wasn’t too long ago when Calgary’s season was on life support. Mired in a 0-7-1 slump, the Flames were in LA for their final game before the Christmas break. They rallied to win, 4-3 in overtime, and haven’t looked back.
The victory kick-started a four-game winning streak which then gave way to a three-game losing streak. But they’ve reeled off four straight wins since then, all of which have been on the road against Pacific Division opponents. Victories at Vancouver (1-0), Arizona (4-1), San Jose (4-3) and LA (2-1 OT) have them believing they can beat any team.
“They don’t quit,” said Ducks head coach Bruce Boudreau. “If they’re down a goal or two in the third period, it doesn’t matter. They just press on. They believe they can do it all the time. I’ve been on teams like that. Those are the toughest teams to beat. That’s why they’re going to be a tough opponent for us and everybody else for the rest of the year.”
Expect the Flames to go with rookie goaltender Joni Ortio tonight, and why not? Since being recalled from Adirondack (AHL) on Jan. 8, the 23-year-old has gone 4-0-0 with a 1.23 goals-against average, .958 save percentage and one shutout. “Right now, his play is forcing us to keep him here,” said Flames bench boss Bob Hartley. “I think it’s pretty safe to say that he deserves another start.” After activating Karri Ramo off IR yesterday, the Flames are carrying three goaltenders, including former Duck Jonas Hiller.
Calgary has played Anaheim extremely close in the first two meetings of the season, with each game being decided by one goal. Ducks defenseman Ben Lovejoy says Calgary’s high-flying top defensive pair of Mark Giordano and TJ Brodie has the ability to control games. The All-Star bound Giordano currently co-leads league defensemen in scoring (39 points) while Brodie ranks tied for 12th (with Anaheim’s Sami Vatanen) with 29 points.
“They’re elite d-men who really control the pace of play,” said Lovejoy. “They’ve got the puck for the majority of the game and they start their offense. We need to control them and be smart with the puck because they’re very good in transition.”
Lovejoy says it’s up to Anaheim’s forwards to negate their speed and limit their options in the neutral zone. “If they’re able to beat our forwards up the ice, there is very little we can do as defensemen,” Lovejoy said. “We rely on our good defensive play from our forwards. If we can do that, we more often than not have a successful game.”
As for the Ducks, they enter tonight’s game in a spot they’ve rarely given up the entire season. Leading the NHL in standings points and tied for second in wins with Nashville and Tampa Bay, the Ducks are currently riding a four-game winning streak, have wins in six of their last seven (6-1-0) and have points in nine of the last 11 (8-2-1, 17 pts.). The club is also 16-4-1 in its last 21 games and 19-6-1 in its last 26. And at Honda Center, where they recently completed a successful eight-game homestand (6-2-0), the Ducks have won 10 of their last 12 games (10-2-0) overall. Anaheim is also 21-0-5 when scoring first this season, the lone NHL team without a regulation loss in such situations.
While not scratching and clawing for a playoff spot like the Flames, the Ducks are still finding ways to motivate themselves on a nightly basis. Entering the All-Star break on a good note is another motivational push, but Boudreau warns his team that the break doesn’t start until tomorrow.
“We can’t be sitting here thinking we’re starting [the break] already,” he says, “especially against a team that’s so committed and doing so well on this trip.”
“This last game makes or breaks my All-Star break, my Christmas break and things like that every year,” said Lovejoy. “If you have a bad game, you think about it the whole time and you don’t have a way to correct it.”
“You always want to go into a break on a win,” said Matt Beleskey, whose 17 goals rank second on the club. “It makes those four days off that much better. Hopefully we can do that tonight.”