The home stretch

RANDY SPORTAK -- Calgary Sun

, Last Updated: 12:43 PM ET

Twenty-five games in 49 nights.

Now that's a tall order.

Throw in the travel that comes with it for the Calgary Flames and it becomes a taller task.

You certainly can understand Rhett Warrener's venom.

"We're not playing badminton. It's a fairly physical sport," said the Flames defenceman. "They wanted to put the best product on the ice for the Olympics and they failed to do it because guys were worn out and are hurt.

"And now it gets harder. You just pray you're healthy going into the playoffs. It'll be a very difficult grind."

Warrener's not just talking about the Flames situation.

From Tuesday's restart until the final buzzer of the regular season April 18, the action around the NHL will be fast and furious.

And constant.

"I tell you what, there won't be a lot of other things going on in peoples' lives other than resting and playing hockey," Warrener said. "That's fine but it's 25 games now and then the playoffs. It can be four months of it. It's what we want but it's going to take a lot out of people."

So, how do you cope?

"You just do," Warrener answered. "You just take care of yourself."

At least the seven-week run to the regular-season finish line serves as a training ground for the playoff run.

That's how Darren McCarty, who's experienced four trips to the Stanley Cup final in his career and three times hoisted hockey's Holy Grail, looks at it.

"It's the stretch drive," McCarty said. "It puts you in that playoff mentality because that's what the playoffs are like.

"Coming back after this break, guys are ready and excited. I'd rather play every other day because the emphasis is on games instead of practices and you keep rolling.

"Hopefully, you get in a good stride, good habits and things carry over."

In the spring of 2004, the Flames left the all-star break with 28 games and GM/head coach Darryl Sutter broke those games into four, seven-game series.

They collected four wins in every series and McCarty said they may try to do something similar this time around.

The Flames won their final three games before the break, giving them a nice headstart on the first best-of-seven. Or they could choose to split the remaining games into five five-game series.

Either way, the goal is to rack up another 15 or 16 wins.

"We're at 73 points now and if in 25 games we can tack on at least 30, maybe 32 or 34, that puts us at 103 to 107," McCarty said. "That should be pretty good."

It won't be easy, though.

Calgary's drive to the post-season begins with five games at home but before the campaign concludes, the club will face Colorado four times, Vancouver twice and will have to travel to Edmonton and Minnesota two times each.

Plus, there's a difficult seven-game road swing from March 16 through 26.

"That's gonna be our test," McCarty said. "We have yet to prove ourselves, in our minds, on the road this year and that's a perfect opportunity to do it. It's also why it's imperative to get our points right away with five at home but we'll need a good trip. We control our own destiny and that trip's going to be part of it."

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CALGARY FLAMES

Predicted Northwest Division Finish 1

INJURED: D Roman Hamrlik (hand, out two weeks)

The Flames open with five at home, follow up with a home-and-home with Colorado, before going on the road for seven straight.

Something in the vicinity of 10 wins in those 14 games is possible and should mean a solid hold on top spot in the Northwest Division.

In its final 25 games, Calgary has 11 against division rivals, where the club already boasts a 14-5-2 record.

BURNING QUESTION

Does Jarome Iginla ignite for the stretch drive?

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VANCOUVER CANUCKS

Predicted Northwest Division Finish 2

INJURED: D Ed Jovanovski (abdomen, indefinitely); D Mattias Ohlund (ribs, DTD) and D Sami Salo (shoulder, DTD); G Dan Cloutier (knee, lost for season).

One would think 13 of 23 games at home has the makings of a great finish for the Canucks. Or not.

Vancouver's top three defencemen -- Ed Jovanovski, Mattias Ohlund and Sami Salo are all ailing.

Those injuries will likely cost them the division title.

BURNING QUESTION Where do they find the players to fill in on the blueline?

We see 'em: Feb. 28 @ 'Dome, April 8 in Vanc'vr

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COLORADO AVALANCHE

Predicted Northwest Division Finish 3

INJURED: C Pierre Turgeon (shoulder, DTD); LW Alex Tanguay (hip, DTD); D Ossi Vaananen (broken ankle, indefinitely); LW Steve Konowalchuk (wrist, lost for season)

The good news for the Avs is they -- like Vancouver -- have only 23 games left. The bad news is they're three points back of Calgary with the toughest schedule of the four top Northwest teams.

Following home games vs. Minny and Columbus, the Avs play 10 of 11 on the road.

BURNING QUESTION How much longer can rookie Marek Svatos carry the team?

We see 'em: March 12 in Col'rdo, March 13@ 'Dome, March 31@ 'Dome, April 13@ 'Dome

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EDMONTON OILERS

Predicted Northwest Division Finish 4

INJURED: C Michael Peca (groin, DTD); C Marty Reasoner (lung, DTD); D Jason Smith (toe, DTD); LW Ethan Moreau (leg, indefinitely); D Dick Tarnstrom (respiratory infection, indefinitely) and D Igor Ulanov (rib, indefinitely).

The Oilers have 13 of their remaining 24 games at home. They have 11 games left against division rivals.

Don't be surprised to see the Oilers higher than fourth in the division but a rash of injuries could prevent a climb.

BURNING QUESTION Can they ever find consistent goaltending? Is Cujo returning?

We see 'em: March 16 in Edm., April 1 in Edm

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MINNESOTA WILD

Predicted Northwest Division Finish 5

INJURED: C Randy Robitaille (broken toe, DTD).

Those who see the glass as half-full, would envision a dozen games against Northwest Division teams as a good thing. It is a chance to make up ground quickly.

The half-empty crowd would look at Minny's record so far against the four other teams -- 7-12-1.

While the Wild have made a good run, don't expect them to make the playoffs.

BURNING QUESTION Which goalie will be traded, Manny Fernandez or Dwayne Roloson?

We see 'em: March 19 in Minn., March 21 in Minn., April 7@ 'Dome

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CENTRAL

1. The Red Wings have only 11 of 24 remaining games at the Joe Louis Arena but that's the only tough part of their schedule.

Eleven of their games -- thanks to nine against Columbus, Chicago and St. Louis -- are versus sub-.500 teams, which should easily give them top spot in the Western Conference.

We see 'em: April 3 @ 'Dome

2. The Predators' chances of catching Detroit were slim but are going to soon be non-existent. The conference's best home-ice team has 13 of 24 remaining on the road, including five of its next six. Nashville has two lengthy road swings before the end of March but does have 11 games against the four teams currently below .500.

We see 'em: March @ 'Dome, March 18 in Nash.

3. Don't be surprised to see Columbus take a run at Phoenix in the conference standings. The Blue Jackets have 13 of their remaining 24 games at home, where they're actually above the .500 mark. Should Columbus make hay during its 10 games against the other three sub-.500 teams, they'll build some momentum for next season.

We see 'em: March 24 in Columbus

4. The good news for Chicago is 15 of 25 games are at home. The bad news is the Blackhawks aren't all that good in the United Center.

The Windy City bunch is in big trouble with four games remaining against Detroit and three against Nashville, while staring at plenty of trade action.

We see 'em: No more this season

5. Not only do the Blues play 26 games down the stretch, only six are against teams below the .500 mark. They open by facing all five Northwest squads, before a slew of games against the Pacific Division. Rumours of a deadline firesale won't go away, so the nice run St. Louis put together before the break will likely come to a crashing halt.

We see 'em: March 2 @ 'Dome, March 23 in St. Louis

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PACIFIC

1. That strong start will pay off now. Dallas won't be challenged for the division crown, thanks to the mediocrity of the rest of the Pacific but won't have an easy task.

The Stars begin with seven of nine on the road -- with three sets of back-to-backs in that spell -- and have only 10 home dates remaining.

We see 'em: March 9 @ 'Dome, March 26 in Dallas

2. The Kings have the fewest games remaining among all the NHL teams -- 22 -- and 12 of them are at home. Still, they have a tough schedule with only five games against sub-.500 teams. Nine of their tilts are against Pacific Division teams, two against Dallas, so it'll be up to the Kings and their young goaltenders to hold their position.

We see 'em: March 29 @ 'Dome, April 15 in L.A.

3. San Jose begins with seven of 10 at home and finishes as the host in its final three. The middle isn't as difficult as it could be, either with six games against St. Louis, Chicago, Columbus and Phoenix. Should the Sharks trade Patrick Marleau, it'll be a sign they don't believe they can make a run for the playoffs.

We see 'em: March @ 'Dome

4. With Scott Niedermayer on the shelf for another couple of weeks, the Ducks will be without their best player during the easiest part of their schedule. Anaheim has five of its next nine against sub-.500 teams but its finish isn't all easy. The Ducks end the season with eight games against the tough Northwest Division.

We see 'em: April 11 @ 'Dome, April 17 in Ana.

5. After playing host to Dallas and Detroit, Wayne Gretzky's crew hits the road for seven of eight.

And then it gets harder.

Of the Coyotes' final 10 games, seven are on the road and only one is against a sub-.500 squad (St. Louis).

We see 'em: April 15 @ 'Dome

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BEASTS OF THE EAST

1. Dominik Hasek's injury aside, the Ottawa Senators are still the NHL's team to beat, especially with a fairly simple schedule. Of Ottawa's remaining 25 games, very few are against the elite East squads.

2. The team with the best home record has only 11 dates at the RBC Centre, as opposed to 14 on the road. Still, Carolina plays Washington five times and only 15 of its games are vs. teams .500 or better.

3. With a great intra-divisional record, the Flyers have a shot to vault the Rangers, who they play four times.

Philly has only 11 of 24 at home but are known as a strong road team.

4. Riding a six-game winning streak going into the break, the Rangers are primed to fall. The Blueshirts play 13 of their remaining 24 on the road and have 18 clashes against teams .500 or better.

5. Good thing Buffalo has a solid lead -- eight points against the next wave -- because the Sabres have only one game left against a team below .500 (Washington). They'll be hard-pressed to finish fifth.

6. Tampa Bay will be in the mix. The Lightning has 10 games remaining against sub-.500 teams, including five against Florida.

7. The Devils should rocket out of the break with the New York Islanders on their schedule three times and Pittsburgh twice in their next eight games.

8. Watch for Montreal to earn the final playoff spot more by default than by its own abilities. The Canadiens finish with 14 of 20 games at home.

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THE GREAT PRETENDERS

9. ATLANTA THRASHERS

The Thrashers are the team most likely to move into a playoff spot. However, Atlanta ends the season with 10 games in 18 days.

10. BOSTON BRUINS

By going 10-6-4 since Jan. 1, The Bruins have made a nice charge but it likely won't be enough. They play 22 games against teams at .500 or better.

11. TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS

The free-fall since New Year's Day -- 5-11-2 -- will be costly. Toronto now has 18 of 24 against teams .500 or better, including two vs. nemesis Ottawa.

12. NEW YORK ISLANDERS

The Isles have the opportunity to play spoiler; with three tilts left against each of New Jersey, Philly and the Rangers, the Isles can impact the division title race.

13. FLORIDA PANTHERS

Four more games against Carolina will keep the Panthers near the bottom again.

14. WASHINGTON CAPITALS

The race for last in the Eastern Conference isn't over but Washington should stay ahead of Pittsburgh.

15. PITTSBURGH PENGUINS

Have nine of their next 13 at home but, after that, the Penguins could tank in order to land the No. 1 pick.


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