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Photo Credit: Sergei Belski-USA TODAY Sports

GDB 31.0: Buckle Up, Baby (7pm MT, SNW)

There is no time to relax in the North division. With every game against a divisional foe, there are very few low-stress games. The Oilers are in third place with 36 points. Winnipeg also has 36 points, but they have three games in hand, so they are in second spot. Calgary is in fifth place with 29 points, and only two back of fourth place Montreal.

Calgary has two games in hand on the Oilers and with games tonight and Wednesday, two Calgary victories would suddenly put them only three points behind Edmonton, with two games in hand. The Flames need to win these games to stay close to Edmonton and Montreal, while the Oilers need at least a split.

The Oilers are 15-6 in their past 21 games. They’ve played really well since a slow start, but they can’t relax, or they could find themselves losing two in a row to Calgary, like Montreal just did, and suddenly the Flames are on their heals. The great part about the divisional games is it gives a team the chance to gain ground quickly, or separate themselves quickly. But even a few quick wins over one team means very little if you don’t keep winning.

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On March 3rd the Toronto Maple Leafs completed a dominating three-game sweep over the Oilers and were suddenly 10 points ahead of the Oilers. Oilersnation was concerned, while Leafsnation felt they were clearly the class of the division.

Fast forward to today, and the Maple Leafs are 1-5 since sweeping the Oilers and they’ve been outscored 23-15. Three losses came at the hands of Vancouver and Ottawa. Meanwhile, the Oilers are 4-1 and have outscored the opposition 20-8.

It’s been a wild rollercoaster of a season, and I don’t see it changing anytime soon.

The Flames fired head coach Geoff Ward late in evening on Thursday, March 4th. The next day they signed Daryl Sutter to a three-year deal. Sutter had to quarantine for a few days, so he wasn’t on the bench for their 3-2 to loss to Edmonton a 4-3 shootout loss to Ottawa. He then ran a few practices and the Flames rewarded him with wins over Montreal this past Thursday and Saturday. Suddenly the Flames are feeling good about themselves, and they’ve tightened up defensively. The Canadiens only had 18 shots on goal on Thursday and 25 on Saturday.

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Usually, teams get a bump of excitement when a new coach arrives. In my eyes, Calgary was underachieving under Ward. That isn’t solely on the coach, but sometimes a coach isn’t a good fit for a specific group of players. I still don’t think Calgary has the offensive punch of the Oilers or Maple Leafs, but they have strong goaltending and good defence. I expect them to play a stifling defensive game, and be hard on the forecheck. I think their nights of being loose defensively are likely gone. Sutter expects his players to work hard, regardless of their skillsets, and tonight the Oilers will need work hard and play a patient game.

The good news for the Oilers is they’ve been playing strong defensive hockey for six weeks. They aren’t allowing teams to spend a lot of time in the offensive zone.

Even though they lost to the Canucks on Saturday, Edmonton spent significantly more time in the offensive zone. They had more slot shots, more chances of the rush and significantly more controlled zone exit and zone entries. And that has been a trend for the past few weeks. The Oilers are spending less time in their own end, which makes defending much easier.

It will be an interesting chess match tonight. Can the Flames cycle the puck and wear down the Oilers, or will Edmonton continue to break up plays with active sticks and move the puck out quickly to their forwards?

LINEUP…

Oilers

Draisaitl – McDavid – Yamamoto
Ennis – RNH – Puljujarvi
Shore – Khaira – Archibald
Neal – Haas – Chiasson

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Nurse – Barrie
Lagesson – Larsson
K.Russell – Bear

Smith

Mike Smith starts and Kris Russell (unless medical staff says not ready) and James Neal draw in, while Patrick Russell and Caleb Jones are out. Jones has played better in recent games and with the Oilers in the third game of a 10-games-in-16-night stretch, we will see some rotation on the backend I presume. Zack Kassian is getting closer, but still not ready. They could use his size, speed and physicality against the Flames, but there is no point rushing him back.

Flames

Tkachuk – Lindholm – Dube
Gaudreau – Monahan – Ritchie
Lucic – Backlund – Mangiapane
Bennett – Ryan – Leivo

Giordano – Andersson
Hanafin – Tanev
Valimaki – Kylington

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Markstrom

Flames stick with their winning lineup from Saturday. Calgary was very physical against the Oilers last Saturday and I expect more of that tonight. I’m talking about body contact, not the fights. A few Oilers got rocked and they will need to be ready for another hard-hitting affair tonight.

WHAT THEY’RE SAYING…

From Flamesnation.ca:

Jacob Markstrom starts for the Flames, backed up by David Rittich. The projected active extra is Nikita Nesterov, while Joakim Nordstrom remains out with an injury. The taxi squad is Louis Domingue, Michael Stone, Oliver Kylington, Dominik Simon, Zac Rinaldo and Buddy Robinson – Kylington will be activated for the game tonight.

The Flames have been quite good under new/old bench boss Darryl Sutter, playing a structured defensive game and boasting a really fun layered forecheck. They’ve scored five goals and allowed two, with most of their offense coming off turnovers created by forechecking and battling for loose pucks. The Oilers are a scarier team than Montreal, though, so the Flames will need to keep improving their grasp of the Sutter System if they want to earn their third consecutive win.

TONIGHT…

Photoshop: Tom Kostiuk

GAME DAY PREDICTION: Oilers go to extra time for only the second game this season. They lose 3-2 in a shootout.

OBVIOUS GAME DAY PREDICTION: McDavid scores his 21st career goal against the Flames.

NOT-SO-OBVIOUS GAME DAY PREDICTION: In a close checking, physical game, tempers flare and a surprise lightweight tilt occurs between Josh Archibald and Dillon Dube. Both benches love it.

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