SUN Hockey Pool

Eyes still on top prize

STEVE MACFARLANE

, Last Updated: 10:54 AM ET

The race is tight and the margin for error is slim but the Calgary Flames are staring straight up the road in front of them and ignoring the rearview mirrors.

A streaking Vancouver Canucks team has pulled away recently in the battle for the Northwest Division title, while the Flames have slipped to the eighth spot in the Western Conference.

Right behind Calgary are the Edmonton Oilers, who were presumed dead in the hunt for the playoffs until their provincial rivals began their recent slump.

The Flames have dropped seven of their last nine games and have a five-point gap between them and the division crown they earned last season.

Plus, the Oilers moved within five points of the Flames last night by beating the Detroit Red Wings 4-3 in overtime.

But Calgary's goal hasn't changed.

While fans seem to be quickly losing confidence, the players -- a pretty positive bunch despite another disappointing road trip -- reaffirmed yesterday their sights are set on defending their title.

"The division title's been our goal since the beginning of the year and nothing's changed," said Byron Ritchie, one of the few Flames who chose the on-ice practice option at the Stampede Corral yesterday.

The carpet was down at the 'Dome for last night's Roughnecks game.

"We definitely look at Vancouver and we want to catch them. We believe we can catch them."

The Canucks have won six straight and earned points in 15 of their last 17 contests to pull away from Minnesota and Calgary for top spot in the division.

Interestingly, they've done so the same way the Flames rose to the top of that heap last season -- every single one of the Canucks' victories during their current streak has been decided by one goal.

"They're playing well right now. We've stumbled -- we've been up and down, up and down, inconsistent -- and they've had a really good push," said Tony Amonte, whose Flames host the San Jose Sharks tonight at the Saddledome (8 p.m., CBC).

"It's our turn now to make a push and get things going.

"By no means are we out of the race for the division lead, we've just got to start putting a few wins together here."

Amonte says the slide to the bottom of the playoff pack should serve as a wakeup call and force his team to play the kind of hockey that got it out of a similar early-season slump.

"This is desperation time for us. It seems like -- from my experiences here with this team and with the guys on this team -- when we're desperate we play our best hockey," said Amonte.

"You know what happened in the beginning of the season, after the first 10 games, we're desperate and get things rolling again. Now we've got our backs against the wall again, sitting in eighth spot looking up at everybody else. Desperate times ... so we'll see what we're made of."

Craig Conroy said the teamhad a closed-door meeting during their recent road trip, which according to some reports was heated but they came away with clear heads.

The Flames know they can't keep letting valuable points slip away and have been frustrated by that lately.

"We've given away a lot of points," said Conroy. "We had a good meeting the other day -- just the guys in the room.

"I thought it was a great meeting. Guys seemed positive after that and now we just have to move forward."

But it sure is tempting to peek into that rearview mirror knowing it's the hated Oilers trying to overtake them.

There aren't many who will openly admit they are keeping tabs but Conroy planned on checking out the results of the Oilers/Red Wings tilt last night to see whether the Flames' point spread in the standings over Edmonton would stand up for another night.

It didn't.

"It's tight. That's what (the NHL) wanted, to make it tight, and now it is tight," said Conroy. "I think it's going to be fun down the stretch.

"Hopefully, as the games dwindle down, you can just keep that gap.

It's too close."


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