Title fight weighing on mind

STEVE MACFARLANE -- Calgary Sun

, Last Updated: 8:47 AM ET

Two years ago at this time, the Calgary Flames were in the middle of a run to the Stanley Cup.

No, the NHL playoffs didn't start early in the pre-lockout days. Rather, the Flames broke their final 28 contests into seven-game series as they fought for a playoff spot in 2004.

The strategy paid off with a true run to the Stanley Cup final that season.

This year, the team, now looking down from atop the Northwest Division, is taking things one game at a time.

"The Olympic break kind of messed it all up," Flames GM/head coach Darryl Sutter said yesterday of the motivational blueprint he used in '04.

That said, maybe it isn't a tool he needed to employ this time.

"Every goal that we've quietly set in our room, our players have reached it as a team. As a team, we've exceeded what I've expected," said Sutter, whose team kicks off a seven-game road trip tonight against the Edmonton Oilers. "What we haven't exceeded -- or reached -- is individuals, where we thought they should be."

While a seven-game trek through Edmonton, Nashville, Minnesota, St. Louis, Columbus and Dallas seems perfect for a similar tactic, Jarome Iginla says the fight for the division title is enough incentive.

"It's a big road trip for us," said the Flames captain after practice at the Max Bell Centre yesterday, a couple of hours before landing in Edmonton.

"The games are counting down and playoff spots are so tight. Everybody's bringing their best now. From our point of view, it's just about one game. We've been home for a long time.

"We've tried to make the most of it at home. Going on the road, it's just about Edmonton right now."

Flames winger Darren McCarty says the matchup with the Oilers is first and foremost on his mind. However, he's saving some room for a little math when it comes to the Colorado Avalanche.

"The focus now is Edmonton. They're battling for their lives," stated McCarty, who sees the next few days as a chance to open up some space between Calgary and Colorado -- currently just a point behind the Flames in the division standings.

"We've got to take advantage of some of these games in hand we have over Colorado, because they don't play till Sunday," he said. "Every game's a playoff game -- especially now, at this point of the year. First place in this division is so important because it gives you the home ice and the third seed. You could be third or seventh. This is a great test for this time of the year for us."

Another important aspect to the Flames' 12-day tour is the atmosphere they encounter, starting tonight against their provincial rivals.

Iginla says the past few games at home have provided that post-season feel and he expects the same to ring true on the road.

"You can just feel the intensity rising as far as the anticipation of counting down to the end of the regular season for fans," said Iginla. "Also for us as teams. Teams have been jockeying for playoff position and top of their division.

"Right now, it's do or die for teams -- whether it's division title, whether it's making the playoffs, period.

"It's so close."


Photos