Flames and Wild anticipate defensive battle tonight

The Calgary Flames and Minnesota Wild are both on a roll as the Northwest Division rivals head into their first meeting of the season tonight.

Expect tonight’s game between Dion Phaneuf and the Calgary Flames and the Minnesota Wild to be a defensive battle.

CALGARY — The Calgary Flames and Minnesota Wild are both on a roll as the Northwest Division rivals head into their first meeting of the season tonight.

The Flames (19-8-3) have six wins in their past eight games while the Wild (14-13-3) have won seven of their last nine contests, so something has to give when they clash at the Pengrowth Saddledome.

“They have been playing well and so have we,” said Flames forward Nigel Dawes. “It should be a good game. Obviously, they’re a pretty good defensive hockey team. We’re going to have to work hard to get to the net and get opportunities and second chances.”

Both teams are coming off big wins Wednesday night, when the Flames beat the visiting Atlanta Thrashers 3-1 while the Wild beat the host Colorado Avalanche 1-0. The results moved Calgary past Colorado into top spot in the Northwest Division, while Minnesota moved to within one point of the Edmonton Oilers to escape the division cellar.

“It’s the first time we see them this year and it’s a divisional game, so it’s a big game for both teams,” said Dawes. “Obviously things have been going fairly well for us in the last little while and we have to continue to play like that. It doesn’t really matter who we’re playing. If we can go out and play our game and execute our game plan and have the intensity level that we need, we’re going to have a pretty good opportunity to win the hockey game.”

With five goals in his past eight games, Dawes has been one of the hotter Flames of late. He’s been skating on the left side of Calgary’s top line with Olli Jokinen at centre and captain Jarome Iginla on right wing, a combo that seems to be working.

“He’s a highly skilled player who can make plays and you know, he’s been a scoring threat the last three games,” Jokinen said. “We need him to play that way. He’s one of those guys who wants to make plays and sees the ice well so it’s easy to play with him.”

Calgary coach Brent Sutter has liked what he’s seen so far from Dawes on the top unit, too.

“He’s fit in pretty well there,” Sutter said. “They seem to have some chemistry there. We’ll leave it alone and let it see how it plays out. Dawser brings an element of some offence there and he’s been pretty responsible defensively too, which is something that’s really important for our team to have success.”

On pace to surpass his career highs of 14 goals and 15 assists he recorded in the 2007-08 season with the New York Rangers, Dawes has enjoyed getting the chance to play alongside Jokinen and Iginla.

“We’re starting to find some chemistry a little bit,” said Dawes, who has nine goals and eight assists though 30 games. “For me to have success with them, I think I have to keep playing the way I have. I can’t change anything because when I try and change and maybe try and play how they play, we’re going to come into problems. They’re two of the best players in the league and I just have to bring my elements to the line and use those to help them out.”

Meanwhile, Minnesota has been led by the line of Andrew Brunette playing left wing next to Finnish forwards Mikko Koivu at centre and Antti Miettinen on right wing.

“I might have to dye my hair blond and talk a little Finnish-English or whatever you want to call it and probably skate a little better too,” said Brunette about fitting in on the line. “There’s a few things that I have to work on.”

Whatever the dynamic, it seems to be working for the trio right now as Brunette has scored once and added seven assists in the past five games, while Koivu has three goals and three helpers and Miettinen has scored five times and set up another in the same time frame.

Minnesota’s top line will have to lead the way for the Wild to have success in the Saddledome, where they lost all three times they played last season.

“Since I’ve been in this division . . . they’re always one of the top teams and one of the hardest teams to play against especially in this building,” Brunette said.

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