The Avalanche were the league’s most surprising comeback story last year, but the Flames have been this year’s shock — going from a fringe team struggling to compete with the Wild Card teams in the West to the top of the Pacific Division standings at the halfway point in the season.
Part of that has been Calgary’s impressive third-period drive, coming back from behind to win the game more often than not despite a porous veteran starter in net. Their real surprise, though, has been that backup David Rittich — now known affectionately as ‘Big Save Dave’ — has been everything the Avalanche were hoping to find in Philipp Grubauer, and then some. He’s been lights-out, and has shown no real signs of slowing down.
That’s the daunting opponent Colorado will get to face down on Wednesday evening, hoping to break free of their slump against one of the league’s toughest teams. The West may still be wide open, but Calgary won’t make this an easy one for Colorado as they look to bounce back from their tough loss to Winnipeg.
Gabriel Landeskog - Nathan MacKinnon - Mikko Rantanen
Tyson Jost - Alexander Kerfoot - J.T. Compher
Sheldon Dries - Carl Soderberg - Matt Calvert
Sven Andrighetto - Gabriel Bourque - Logan O’Connor
Samuel Girard - Erik Johnson
Ian Cole - Tyson Barrie
Patrik Nemeth - Ryan Graves
Ryan Graves has been off to a hot start, which gives Colorado’s defense a quality option on their third pairing alongside the inconsistent Patrik Nemeth.
The team’s defensive awareness in their last few games hasn’t been up to snuff, though, and that will need to change badly if they have any hope of beating the Flames. The top line for Colorado remains one of the best in the league, but Calgary’s surprising push-back presence in the third period of their games this year means that even a strong performance from the top trio won’t guarantee a two-point night for the Avalanche.
#Flames lines this morning... one line up change; Kylington out, Prout in— Jermain Franklin (@TSNJFranklin) January 9, 2019
Rittich - starting
The Flames have been a well-oiled machine this year, boasting four 50-point players already this season and three 20-goal scorers to boot.
The top line has been lethal, with Elias Lindholm slotting in well for Calgary alongside Johnny Gaudreau and Sean Monahan — but watch for Frolik on the second line to try proving that he’s not calling this season a wash just yet. The veteran has struggled at times this year, but his nine goals in just 27 games are a sign that he’s still an underrated scoring threat to take seriously.
On the back end, the biggest concern for Colorado will almost certainly be Mark Giordano. The veteran captain is, once again, having a season worthy of a Norris — and with 40 points in 42 games, including a surprising two short-handed goals.
Big Save Dave Rittich vs Varlamov (projected)
The Avalanche have enacted a new policy this week. Head coach Jared Bednar has, per reports, decided that he won’t announce starting goaltenders in advance, instead leaving that information out of public hands until game-time — meaning that while the presumption is that Semyon Varlamov will get the nod in Wednesday night’s game, there’s no guarantee until the team releases their official lineup just ahead of warmups.
Varlamov has been out nursing a lower body injury since last week, leaving Philipp Grubauer to show off just how well he could adapt to getting the starter’s workload at the start of the new year. Things went poorly, though, so now that Varlamov is healthy it’s tough to assume Grubauer will be given another shot in a crucial game; after climbing to the top of the west earlier in the year, the Avalanche are now down in fourth place in the Central at the midway point in the season.
For Calgary, ‘Big Save Dave’ has been the surprise of the year, taking the starting gig from veteran Mike Smith slowly but surely. He’s a bit of a late bloomer — the Jihlava, Czechoslovakia native is already 26-years old — but his .921 save percentage in all situations comes with 15 quality starts and just three poor appearances in his 25 games played so far. In comparison, Smith has limped his way to an .886 save percentage, meaning that Calgary has turned away from their former number one in favor of the up-and-comer Colorado will face tonight.