SUN Hockey Pool

It's time to sweat

Coach Jim Playfair's Flames are facing a tough week. (Sun Media/Darren Makowichuk)

Coach Jim Playfair's Flames are facing a tough week. (Sun Media/Darren Makowichuk)

RANDY SPORTAK -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 9:50 AM ET

When they arrived in their dressing room for practice March 1 and looked at the standings board, the Calgary Flames couldn't read anything but good news.

That morning, they were tied with Vancouver atop the Northwest Division standings, two points ahead of Minnesota.

Best yet, the clubs on the outside of the playoffs picture were well back. Seemingly so far back, it was inconceivable the Flames could lose their playoff spot.

That morning, the Colorado Avalanche were 12 points behind the Flames.

The Flames opened March with a pair of road wins but the slump that followed, combined with the Avs' hot streak, has turned life upside-down.

This morning, a mere 18 sleeps later, the Avs are only four points back of the Flames with both teams having 10 games remaining.

The Flames are looking over their shoulders.

"Everybody's written us off but that's fine," said centre Craig Conroy, one of a handful of players who practised yesterday. "You have bumps and hiccups (in a season) but who's to say this isn't it? This could be the point where it turns around and things start going great.

"It's got to start Tuesday, though, because we can't take any time off and can't wait any longer because Colorado's coming and we've put ourselves in this position."

Calgary holds the upper hand. You'd rather be ahead than play catch-up with three weeks remaining in the regular season.

But that's about the only advantage the Flames have.

Of their final 10 games, six are on the road, where they've struggled all season.

Only two of their games are against non-playoff teams, one in Chicago and the other at home against the Edmonton Oilers, a team that will not give their rivals an easy time.

Even the immediate future is daunting, with home games this week against the top two clubs in the conference, Detroit and Nashville.

"Oh yeah, two very tough games," said defenceman Robyn Regehr.

"It's gonna be a good test for our hockey team."

How good?

Detroit has taken two of three against the Flames this season, including a 7-4 shellacking in the last encounter.

As for Nashville, Calgary has dropped the last eight meetings, including the last four at the Saddledome.

"Detroit's a great team, they're going for first overall. Same for Nashville," Conroy said. "They're battling because if they're not first (in the conference), they're fourth.

"It's an opportunity for us as a team. What better way to regroup and move forward. It's not going to be easy, we'll have to unleash everything we've got."

Meanwhile, the Avs have a more favourable schedule in the immediate future.

Up next are a pair of games in Edmonton against an Oilers team that has plummeted down the standings thanks to a 10-game losing streak.

The series this year is even at three wins apiece but it's worth nothing Edmonton won the first two encounters.

After a home-and-home series against Vancouver (the Avs have taken three of five from the division leaders this season), the free-falling Phoenix Coyotes provide the opposition, a third game versus a dead-in-the-water squad.

What may decide the final Western Conference playoff spot are the two games between the Flames and Avs in the final days of the regular season.

Colorado visits the Stampede City April 3, the middle game of a three-game road swing, and the clubs finish the season April 8 in Denver.

The good news for Calgary is both teams will be playing for the third time in four nights when they meet for the finale. The bad news is Colorado is at home the night before while the Flames have to jet in from Calgary after playing the Oilers.

Since Colorado has skated to victory in three of the last four meetings between the teams, including a pair of games in Denver, it doesn't bode well.

Can the Flames hang on to their playoff spot? Sure, but it'll take a quick turnaround from their play of late.

Can they be overtaken by the Avs?

You bet. And it could happen by Friday.


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