There was a funny, scary moment at the morning skate ahead of Wednesday's NHL game between the Calgary Flames and the Toronto Maple Leafs. When the Flames went out onto the ice at the Scotiabank Saddledome, they noticed that the score clock – high above their heads – was tilted at a weird angle, strangely hanging off-centre. Needless to say, Flames coach Bob Hartley wanted assurances from building staff that it was securely fastened before he allowed his team to go on the ice.
"Early this morning, when I came in, I saw the clock and I asked questions," said Hartley. "They say it's going to be fixed by game time."
Hartley had safety on his mind Wednesday for a lot of reasons, not just because of a Jumbotron either. Within the past week, the team lost two of its most important players, defenceman Mark Giordano and forward Lee Stempniak, with a broken ankle and a broken foot respectively. Accordingly, the Flames have mandated that every player wear shot blockers as part of their equipment.
"We learned from our mistakes, with what happened with Giordano and Stempniak," said Hartley. "We told them, we would get them whatever they needed. Most of them are custom moulded … Even though they are pros, we have to put some strict policies in place. We're certainly not a better team without those guys in the lineup.
"On every team, I've coached, helmets are mandatory even in warm-ups. The other day, there was a CBC game on Saturday and I had the inside feed on in my office and suddenly, I looked and saw (Dennis) Wideman down. He had taken a shot right off the helmet and he was down."
Thankfully, Wideman – who is averaging 28:08 of ice time per night, second in the NHL behind the Minnesota Wild's Ryan Suter, wasn't injured on the play. With depth defenceman Chris Breen out with an abdominal strain, Calgary is down to six healthy defenceman and relying mostly on four every night. Wideman plays with Kris Russell, while the shutdown pair is now T.J. Brodie and Chris Butler, who has been moved into a top-four role.
Brodie is like a lot of Ontarians playing around the NHL – a visit from the Leafs is always a special occasion. Once, as an 11-year-old, playing for his minor-hockey team in Chatham, Brodie had a chance to participate in a Leafs' open practice – and promptly broke four targets with five shots, something only Raymond Bourque ever did with that sort of regularity.
The Flames are coming off a 5-2 win over the Washington Capitals, in which Brodie's job was to shutdown Alex Ovechkin, the NHL's No. 2 ranked goal-scorer. It doesn't get any easier tonight with Phil Kessel on tap. Kessel has nine goals on the season and is coming off a four-point performance in Tuesday night's shutout win over the Edmonton Oilers. With a 6 p.m. local start tonight, the Leafs didn't bother coming to the rink this morning, except for a handful of their extra players.
"It's a challenge," said Brodie. "No matter what team you're playing, they always have their top guys and for the most part, they're all the same. They all like to shoot and make plays."
Brodie, incidentally, won't have issues adjusting to the new mandated shot blockers, since he started wearing them last year already, playing in the American Hockey League during the lockout.
"It took me probably a month to get used to them – just the way your skates bend at the ankle is different when you wear them," said Brodie. "It's just weird, playing one way for 20 years and then all of sudden, putting those on. It's just an adjustment."
The Flames have two ex-Leaf centres in the lineup for tonight's game, Matt Stajan, who came over in the Dion Phaneuf deal years ago; and Joe Colborne, who joined them at the start of this year once training camps ended. Stajan is the team's de facto No. 1 centre now, but has only played three games since returning to the line-up from injury. He plays about 18 minutes per night for Hartley, with rookie Sean Monahan clocking in at 15:43; and Colborne at 10:01.
Even after all this time, Stajan said it's still special playing games against Toronto.
"I was there for seven seasons. I played a lot of hockey there. It's my home town. My family will be watching. It's always fun playing these guys."
As for his health, Stajan said he's "feeling good and slowly getting better day by day. It's something I just got to work through and keep going.
"The speed of the game, adjusting to that is going to take a few games, no matter what. But there are a lot of different things I have to do when I approach the game now. In my warm-up, making sure I'm not stiff. It's part of the game. If you get an injury, you've got to take care of it. There are no excuses. That's part of our job."
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