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Preview: Wild face Flames in clash of the West’s best

With two games left, Minnesota has fate of home ice-advantage in their hands.

Calgary Flames v Minnesota Wild Photo by Bruce Kluckhohn/NHLI via Getty Images

Two games left in the regular season, but the Minnesota Wild still have something to play for. With the visiting Calgary Flames in town — whom they’ve struggled against this season — the quest to lock up home-ice advantage in their first-round matchup against the St. Louis Blues will be difficult.

Outscored 12-4 in their two losses to the Flames, the Wild’s main weakness — their special teams — was front in center against a team that excels in that area. With the league’s ninth-best powerplay and sixth-best penalty kill (operation at 23.5% and 83.6%, respectively), the Flames scored five of their twelve goals on special teams, including a shorthanded goal in the 7-3 thrashing the Wild received back at the end of February.The Flames have built their special-teams superiority off of huge performances from Matthew Tkachuk and Johnny Gaudreau, the offensive engines of this team. With 39 goals and 113 points, the 28-year-old Gaudreau is having far and away the best season of his career, and it just so happens to be a contract year. Funny how that works.

Tkachuk is Joel Eriksson Ek-esque — say that three times fast — both in the underappreciation of his offensive game (41 goals and 61 points) and his ability to get under absolutely everyone’s skin. If the head coach Dean Evason hard matches the GREEF line against Tkachuk, Gaudreau and Elias Lindholm, be prepared for some elite-tier jawing during play and after the whistle.

On defense the Flames are led by guys who looked like they may not pan out, but under the guidance of Darryl Sutter in his first entire season as head coach for the second time, they have turned their careers around. Noah Hanifin once looked lost in both ends of the ice. This season, he has emerged from a cocoon of mediocrity and blossomed into an elite defenseman. Since the March 21 trade deadline, Hanifin is averaging over a point-per-game with four goals and 20 points in 18 contests.

Oliver Kylington looks exactly like the best version of what he could have become when he was drafted; a dynamic offensive threat with nine goals and 31 points after spending years as a tweener, shuttling back and forth between the Flames and their AHL affiliate.

In net, expect to see Jacob Markstrom, as he’s started 62 of the Flames’ 80 games so far. Only Connor Hellebuyck of the Winnipeg Jets and Jusse Saros of the Nashville Predators have more starts than Markstrom. He’s been the backbone of their third-best defence in the NHL, as he’s top three in both save percentage and goals-against average and will undoubtedly end in the top three for Vezina voting.

On the opposite end, Cam Talbot will get his 49th start of the season, having won his last outing against the Vancouver Canucks.

Still, no Matt Dumba, Mats Zuccarello or Jared Spurgeon, although this is likely out of an abundance of caution and gives them a little bit more time to heal up before the playoffs.

These teams are 8-1-1 in their last ten games and sit atop the Western Conference. Both are poised for long playoff runs, so it will be interesting to see how they use tonight as a tune-up game.

Puck drop is at 7:00 p.m. CT. See you then.

Burning Questions

Does Kirill Kaprizov continue to extend the franchise records?

He’s already set the franchise records for goals, assists and points. With two goals and ten assists in the last five games, can Kirill continue this momentum for a few more games?

Can the GREEF line shut down one of the most offensively potent lines in the NHL?

After being reunited for the game against the Arizona Coyotes, the Jordan Greenway, Eriksson Ek, and Marcus Foligno will likely be tasked with handling Tkachuk, Gaudreau and Lindholm. After letting the trio run rampant in their previous two matchups — to the tune of a combined four goals and 12 points — will the WIld’s elite shutdown line be able to handle Calgary’s best?