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Sharks at Flames Preview: Time for a little payback

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Tonight’s game is a measuring stick for both teams.

Dec 31, 2018; Calgary, Alberta, CAN; Calgary Flames center Sam Bennett (93) squares off against San Jose Sharks left wing Barclay Goodrow (23) during the third period at Scotiabank Saddledome. The Flames won 8-5. Candice Ward-USA TODAY Sports

The last time the Sharks played the Calgary Flames, the Sharks got pushed around and beat up, both on the scoreboard and physically. The 8-5 whooping on Dec. 31, 2018 included a nasty play by Sam Bennett that sidelined Radim Simek for about a week. This will be the first time these two teams face off since that showdown.

Not much has changed since that December meeting. The Flames (34-14-5) are still tops in the Pacific Division with 73 points. The Sharks (31-16-7) are within striking distance with 69 points. Both teams are also firing on all cylinders. The Sharks are 7-3-0 in their last 10 games and have won the last three in a row in overtime. The Flames are 8-1-1 in their last 10 games. Their last game was Sunday, a 4-3 win over the Carolina Hurricanes.

This is the third of four games in the season series. The Sharks won the first one 3-1 on Nov. 11, 2018. The Flames won the aforementioned second one on New Year’s Eve. They will play the final game of the regular season series on March 31 in San Jose.

For the Flames the most dangerous player on the ice is Johnny Gaudreau. The kid has some sick mitts that were on display at the NHL All-Star game last month. He leads the team in points (74), goals (29) and assists (45). He’s supported by Sean Monahan (62 points) and Elias Lindholm (60 points). On defense, there’s a lot of talk about Mark Giordano, who is having himself a Norris Trophy worthy year. Giordano has 53 points (11 goals, 42 assists) so far this season and is plus-30.

Because the Flames have not played since Sunday, starting goaltender David Rittich is likely to start in net. Rittich stole the starting job from Mike Smith early in the season. Rittich is 20-4-4 this season with a 2.49 goals against average and .918 save percentage.

On the Sharks side of things, it looks like everyone but Erik Karlsson is healthy and ready to go. The lineup shouldn't change much, if at all, from Tuesday night in Winnipeg. The Sharks were able to mostly contain the offensively blessed Jets and they’re going to need the same skills tonight against the Flames.

Playoff implications

Barring an amazing meltdown by either team, the Sharks and the Flames are headed for the postseason. Most likely, if they meet, it will be in the second round with a berth in the Western Conference Final on the line. The oddsmakers would tell you, this is more likely to happen than not, which means tonight’s game has most definite playoff implications.

First and foremost, it’s two very important points. Both teams want to finish first in the division, which tends to lead to an easier first round matchup. Neither one wants to play the Vegas Golden Knights in round one. So, the two points are important. For the Sharks, it puts them within two points of the top spot. For the Flames, a win gives them a little breathing room.

Second, let’s go back to that Sam Bennett hit on Dec. 31.

The Sharks called it “gutless” and “predatory” after the game. The NHL Department of Player Safety failed to see it the same way and Bennett received no other discipline. It was a hit late in the game that had no impact on the final score. The Flames were already going to win the game and the two teams were just playing out the final seconds. That in itself, makes it a dirtier hit.

Tonight, the Sharks need to respond. Bennett needs to know that he will have to take responsibility for shots like that or else he’ll take another one in a seven-game series that could knockout a difference maker like Marc-Edouard Vlasic or Erik Karlsson. This about teaching Bennett (who has played a grand total of 15 playoff games) that there’s a price for recklessness. It’s also about putting the rest of the Flames on notice that the Sharks aren’t a team that can be pushed around.

Of course, the last time the Sharks got caught up in revenge was against the Maple Leafs, where attempting to engage Nazem Kadri cost the Sharks the game.

Make the Flames pay on the scoreboard first.

What’s up with EK65?

This seems to be a favorite question from Sharks fans in the past few weeks. Erik Karlsson has been considered day-to-day since Jan. 18 and no one can seem to figure out what the cause is. Karlsson was able to take part in the All-Star festivities on Jan. 25 and 26, but then missed practice when the team returned, reportedly due to illness.

Karlsson is not on the four-game swing through Canada, but could join the team somewhere along the line according to The Mercury News’ Paul Gackle.

The Sharks have looked good in Karlsson’s absence, but imagine how amazing the team will look when he suits back up? If you don’t believe me, TSN’s Travis Yost has a great take on how dominant the Sharks’ blueline is. I’m not a huge numbers person, he is and it’s a great look at the numbers. The bottom line of the story, Brent Burns and Erik Karlsson are just killing it and it’s giving opposing teams fits to try and contain them.

Counting down to the trade deadline

The Sharks are winning games which is great, but if they have one hole, it’s on the fourth-line. Dylan Gambrell is just the latest young guy to get a shot at locking up that spot. He looked good Tuesday night, but he’s looked good before and then found himself back with the Barracuda.

Knowing Doug Wilson, he’s working the phones whether or not he’s planning to pull the trigger on a trade. He better work the phones fast, because some of the better pieces on the market are going quickly and the best pieces are getting pricier by the minute.

About a week ago, The Athletic’s Kevin Kurz targeted Brian Boyle as a possible trade target for the Sharks.

Boyle is now off the market. Yesterday, the Nashville Predators paid a second round pick to New Jersey for the Unrestricted Free Agent. If that’s what it’s going to cost for a bottom six guy, the Sharks better be ready to pay the price and that may mean a young prospect like Gambrell is on the move to make it happen.

Keep in mind, the Sharks are also working with some cap issues. Cap Friendly says Wilson only has about $1.1 million to work with. That means any large acquisition would require money to leave town.

Food for thought.

Bold Prediction: I was pretty wrong about the game against the Arizona Coyotes, but I’m striving to do better today.

I have searched Hockey Fights for a bout involving Radim Simek and could not find one. I found four this season involving Sam Bennett, including one against Barclay Goodrow at the end of the New Year’s Eve game that could hardly be called a fight. Just the same, I think the Sharks allow Simek to line up at forward and Calgary obliges and puts Bennett on the ice too. The two drop the gloves at the drop of the puck and old scores are settled.

The game turns into an offensive slug fest after that, but the Sharks continue to roll with a 6-4 (one’s an empty netter) win that puts the Flames on notice.

That’s my take. Drop yours below and we’ll see you later tonight.