SUN Hockey Pool

Hair-raising hockey bout

RANDY SPORTAK -- Calgary Sun

, Last Updated: 9:35 AM ET

Light up the marquee.

Cue the band.

Bring in Don King Promotions.

Tonight's first-place showdown between the Calgary Flames and the Colorado Avalanche is the game of the year -- so far.

"Don King might not be necessary but I know Mike Tyson was ready for his fights," quipped Flames defenceman Andrew Ference. "But we're not the ones piping it up to the outside, we pipe it up in our dressing room."

Until the puck drops tonight at the Saddledome (7:30 p.m., Sportsnet, FAN 960) there'll be plenty of hype outside the building.

With the conference standings tightening like a noose, seemingly each and every outing is worthy of as much pomp and circumstance as possible.

However, the importance of a showdown with first place on the line this late in the season can't be overstated.

"Everyone's saying, 'We're playing playoff hockey now,' and we are," said Flames forward Shean Donovan. "We're playing for our lives. It's a huge game. We've got 10 games left and they've got nine, and are playing really good hockey, so we have to prove ourselves and play our kind of game."

It's not a proverbial do-or-die outing. Neither team will be eliminated with a defeat, only falling a maximum of two points off the pace.

So, two points may be found elsewhere before the regular-season finale April 17. In the Flames case, maybe even tomorrow night when they face the Oilers.

But the players themselves don't want to look at it that way.

"You can't afford not to get them," Donovan said.

"The standings are shrinking and we've only got 20 points to get. And the other teams play each other, so they're going to get points.

"Plus, it's a test. We played Colorado back-to-back (earlier this month) and didn't have a good game there and came home with a better game and want to be a team that proves we deserve to win."

Ference sees it the same way.

"You can get two points elsewhere but when you're tied with somebody and shooting for that first-place spot, you want to deny them the two points and get them," he said. "It is big. It's big for being head-to-head against Colorado and also to get the two points on Edmonton, Vancouver, everybody else chasing you.

"It's not something when you can look to get points elsewhere. We did that on the road trip where we lost and put ourselves in the position we have to get these points now.

"We won't downplay this in the locker-room."

Amazingly, this is just part of the ongoing rush of excitement over the playoff chase.

For the next two-and-a-half weeks, the NHL schedule is filled with headline contests. Which means players have to cope with a roller-coaster of emotions.

No problem, said forward Tony Amonte, since games of this magnitude make it worth coping through the bumps and bruises.

"There's a lot of emotion that goes into these games," Amonte said. "You could feel (Wednesday) night, walking through the parking lot and into the rink, there was a different feel.

"This time of year has a different feel in the arena and it's fun to be a part of it."


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