WINNIPEG, MB -- It may be early January but for the Calgary Flames and Winnipeg Jets, this evening's match-up has a postseason feel to it.
The Flames are holding onto the first Wildcard position in the Western Conference with 46 points, separated by just two points from second-place Los Angeles. They have Vancouver, with 43 points, nipping at their heels and Nashville and Winnipeg, with 41 points each, not far behind them.
So, it goes without saying that games against clubs jostling for Wildcard spots are of extreme importance.
"This is huge," Chad Johnson said after this morning's practice at the MTS Centre. "Games with teams chasing you in the standings and fairly close to you, (they have) that playoff sort of atmosphere to it because you know in two, three months, these points are going to matter. You want to separate yourself from teams from our standpoint.
"We know it's going to be a tough match-up for us tonight and we're expecting a tough game from them ... they're tough games and we're looking forward to it."
The Flames are coming off of a pair of similar games with Western Conference rivals, splitting a home-and-home set with the Vancouver Canucks on Friday and Saturday.
In the first of the two contests, Vancouver bested Calgary 4-2 despite the Flames outshooting the Canucks 46-13. The Flames responded with a 3-1 win on Saturday, with Johnson keeping the Canucks at bay with a 28-save performance.
Overall, the team was happy with their play against their divisional foes but there is one area of their game they want to clean up this evening.
"Just looking back, the two games against Vancouver probably ended the way they should have," head coach Glen Gulutzan recalled. "I think we need to be better here, in our start, and our continuation. I didn't think we started well on (Saturday) and it tripped us up out of the blocks at home against Vancouver."
The Jets will be without leading scorer Patrik Laine in this evening's game. The No. 2 in the 2016 NHL Draft suffered a concussion after taking a hard hit from Buffalo's Jake McCabe on Saturday and there is no timeline on Laine's return to action.
"You can't change (your game)," Jacob Trouba stated when asked about Laine's injury. "You saw it earlier in the year, there was a lot of guys can come up and step in. He's a tough guy to replace but we don't really have a choice at this point.
"We've got to come in and keep playing the same way and keep moving forward."
In 42 games, Laine has 21 goals and 37 points.
In Laine's absence, veteran Drew Stafford has been shuffled up to play alongside Mark Scheifele and Nikolaj Ehlers on the Jets' top line. In 27 games this year, Stafford has seven points and scored his third goal of the season in Saturday's setback to the Sabres.
"I know I can produce. I know I can play that way," Stafford said of the promotion. "I'm looking forward to it.
"I'm looking forward to being in more of an offensive role. Hopefully I can help the team by producing."
Apart of taking note of new lines and power play units for the Jets, the Flames aren't changing their game plan with Laine sidelined.
"I look at this team ... all their young, talented players and they've got a really good mix of veteran guys. It doesn't change our mentality at all," Gulutzan stated. "The way we approach the game won't change."