And so it begins, the annual rite of passage known as the Circus Trip. This year, the Hawks kick off the six game roadie in Calgary, to face a numbers-defying Calgary Flames team who already took a bonus point away from the Hawks last month on United Center ice.
As of tonight, the Flames shockingly have 26 points, good for second in the Pacific and the fourth highest point total in the league. And they’ve been doing it the same way that other surprise teams have done so in the past, whether it was last year’s Avalanche or the Wild from two seasons ago, by getting above average goaltending and somehow shooting well above their means at even strength despite getting buried in possession metrics. Coach Bob Hartley always had this group of youngesters and older underachievers at least working hard on a nightly basis the past few seasons with nothing to show for it. But now in a year that they should by all rights be tanking to get into the McDavid or Eichel derby, they’re overachieving and potentially fooling the front office and fandom into believing that any of this is for real.
It’s started with newcomer Jonas Hiller, who while not grotesquely overperforming his usual career numbers when healthy with a .937 even strength save percentage, is certainly light years beyond the crease vomit the Flames got from Reto Berra and Kari Rammo to start the post-Miikka Kiprusoff era last season. Hiller has been facing 28.4 shots in his 14 starts, so his workload from what’s on net hasn’t been too comical, but in those games the Flames have only carried a share 43.86 at even strength, only above Colorado and Buffalo as the worst in the league. So Hiller has had to work substantially more than his counterparts at every turn.
The real revelation (if it can be called that) has been on the blue line, where the top pairing of Mark Giordano and T.J. Brodie is finally starting to get some national attention, if only a season too late. Sure, they are 1 and 2 in scoring on the Flames, with Giordano breaking the point-per plateau at 21 points in 20 games and Brodie not far behind with 16 (4G, 12A), but even they are submerged at even strength. Both are have a mid-46% share at evens, and while the team is only 42% without them, that’s still not even up to the standard they set last year, which was 53% for Giordano and 51% for Brodie. But what is happening is that the team as a whole is shooting close to 13% with both of them on the ice, which has allowed them to rack up the points and start to garner Norris and MVP talk for Giordano, which is patently ridiculous even from normally sane sources. That’s not to say that either of these players are bad, far from it, and they’re certainly out performaning their garbage surroundings. But the praise is a little bit misguided, akin to when Martin Scorcese won his Oscar for The Departed when Goodfellas was far and away the superior film.
Up front the Flames are still mixing an odd assortment of young and talent skill and porterhouse-caliber steakheads. The apple of Ryan Lambert’s eye Johnny Gaudreau has impressed with 13 points so far including a few multi-point outburts of late, albeit in heavily sheltered minutes. Second year center Sean Monahan has started to see tougher minutes, and though he’s still in the red in possession (because literally everyone on the Flames is), he’s second on the Flames to only fourth liner Paul Byron at 48.6%, and generates the most attempts on net per 60 minutes of 5v5 play when he’s on the ice at 56.92. Mikael Backlund and Curtis Glencross will undoubtedly score tonight for the Flames because that’s just what they seem to do against the Hawks.
As for our Men of Four Feathers, they’ll be sporting a bit of a different look tonight since they last saw the ice on Sunday. Andrew Shaw missed this morning’s practice and will not skate tonight for yet to be disclosed reasons, so Ben Smith will hop into the third center role and will be flanked by Jeremy Morin and Bryan Bickell. This unit has the potential to do some real damage, as Smith has excelled in spot duty in the faceoff ring this year, winning 52% of his draws to Andrew Shaw’s 45%, and both Morin and Bickell drive possession and should do so immensely tonight against a Calgary team that has struggled in that department. That leaves Marcus Kruger to center Joakim Nordstrom and Gorilla Salad, forming a unit that is supposed to do….something.
On the blue line, in Trevor Van Riemsdyk’s prolonged absence AHL vet Adam Clendening gets to make his NHL debut in earnest tonight (game 48 in 2013 notwithstanding), getting first crack at that spot among the barrelful of defenseman prospects the Hawks currently have. Clendening’s game is heady, known for his excellent first pass and offensive instincts, though he apparently isn’t a plus skater, and can get adventurous in his own end. There isn’t really a softer landing for him than the third paring on the Hawks going up against a possession deficient Flames team, so he should be able to get his feet under himself nicely, and was actually working the point on the second power play unit, which is where he truly excels. It’s assumed that he’ll play with Michal Rozsival, but Q ran through several different looks in practices, including Rozy with Keith, so it’s anyone’s guess regarding what will be consistently trotted out there. One would think that keeping the pairs stable would be beneficial to a younger defenseman, but this is Quenneville after all.
Corey Crawford will start his 9th game in a row, but he figures to get a night off in one part of the back-to-back coming Saturday and Sunday, with the money being on Antti Raanta seeing the Oilers first in Edmonton two days from now.
Despite what the standings say, the story hasn’t changed from when these teams squared off previously at the United Center. The Hawks have the Flames outgunned, and it will take a superlative performance from Hiller to stay in the game, let alone win it. They got that kind of output last time and walked away with the overtime point. What is up for discussion is if they can do it again tonight. Let’s go Hawks