On the itinerary? A home date against the Western Conference-leading Nashville Predators, followed by a showdown with the Edmonton Oilers and one-of-a-kind Connor McDavid, the NHL’s reigning scoring champion and speediest superstar.
In the infirmary? Mikael Backlund, the Calgary Flames’ shutdown centre and most reliable defensive forward.
“It’s going to be a very, very, very, very tough hole to fill,” admitted Matthew Tkachuk, fellow Flames alternate captain and a fixture as Backlund’s left-hand man on the second line. “I don’t think one person can do all the things that Backs does on our team, no matter who you are. Backs is probably our best 200-foot player. No, he is our best 200-foot player. What he does at both ends of the ice is very important and special for us, so it’s hard for one guy to come in and fill that role.
“I know it’s an old cliché line to say, ‘You have to do it by committee.’ But replacing a guy like that, you have to.”
On what was a news-y day around the Saddledome, Flames coach Bill Peters confirmed Backlund will — as initially feared — miss some action after being crunched by Minnesota Wild defenceman Matt Dumba with an open-ice hit in the final minute of Thursday’s 2-0 blanking of the visitors from the State of Hockey.
The 29-year-old Backlund is in concussion protocol, so it’s impossible to predict a timeline for his return. He has already been ruled out for Saturday’s matchup against the Predators and won’t be travelling to Edmonton for Sunday’s Battle of Alberta rematch, either.
This is a significant loss for a Flames squad that has scorched to an 8-1-1 record in their past 10 showings. (The two-game suspension for Calgary’s captain, Mark Giordano, is very bad news, too.)
Whether it is Nashville’s Ryan Johansen, Edmonton’s McDavid or (Insert Sharpshooter) of (Insert Opposing Team), identify the most dangerous dynamo in the other sweater and you have figured out who Backlund will be matched up against for his five-on-five shifts.
He is a key piece on a second power-play unit that has finally started to click and is usually the first forward to hop over the boards in any short-handed situation.
“I don’t think you can replace him — he’s an unbelievable player and he’s very special,” said Sam Bennett, who has been working the right wing alongside Backlund and Tkachuk. “The abilities he has and how good he is offensively and defensively, he’s like nobody else in the league, I think. But with him out, it gives other guys an opportunity to step in and show that they can take on a bigger role.
“Sometimes that can help a player, when they need to jump into a bigger role. Some people thrive in that situation.”
Mark Jankowski is anxious to prove he’s one of those guys.
The 24-year-old was skating between Tkachuk and Bennett during Friday’s afternoon practice at the Saddledome, a strong hint that he’ll be in that important slot for a Hockey Night in Canada clash with the Predators, who surrender fewer goals per game (2.45) than any other NHL outfit and are currently sharing the top perch in the Central Division with the Colorado Avalanche.
“He is someone that I look up to and someone I watch in practice and games and see how he plays, and someone that I model my game after a little bit,” said Jankowski of Backlund, who has contributed five tallies and a dozen assists so far this season. “He doesn’t cheat the game. He plays it the right way. He plays structured. He’s always on the ‘D’ side of the puck, and you never see him get beat too often. He’s never cheating. He’s never sniffing for goals or points on the offensive side. He’s always structured on the defensive side …
“He’s a leader. He’s a really big key for us. I think we have to take it by committee. Everyone has to step up a bit.”
That seems to be the consensus.
Peters has a lot of trust in right-hander Derek Ryan, who will likely be buried with defensive-zone starts until Backlund is cleared to return.
The Flames could also lean on Elias Lindholm up the middle, although they’d likely prefer to leave him in his usual role as the right-wing on their top trio. With Johnny Gaudreau dishing out the passes — and purple Gatorade — and Sean Monahan and Lindholm finishing, that has been one of the hottest lines in hockey.
There will also be a forward — Dillon Dube? Curtis Lazar? Alan Quine? — en route from the American Hockey League’s Stockton Heat.
“A guy who plays 20 minutes a night in almost every situation, like Backs does, it’s room for guys who aren’t given that opportunity to be given some of the things that he had,” Tkachuk reasoned. “It’s just about guys taking advantage of that.”
Added Ryan: “It can bring us together. It can be a situation where we all come together and share the load.”
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