SUN Hockey Pool

Post-season arrives early

STEVE MACFARLANE -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 10:44 AM ET

How teams respond to adversity is what ultimately defines them.

Take, for example, the Calgary Flames, who recently banded together and pulled back from the cliff's edge on which they were teetering just two weeks ago.

There's no doubt they are stronger for the experience.

A six-game winning streak capped by a fourth straight victory on the road are the efforts of a far different squad than the one that lost five of their previous half dozen.

In order to ensure they made the post-season, the Flames had to hit playoff mode.

"We've gone through some adversity and it's what makes you stronger as a team," said veteran Darren McCarty. "As you get towards the playoffs, it's a great thing that we're in this race right now. It'd be nicer to battle Vancouver for the top but we're fighting for our lives, which is what you do in the playoffs.

"Last year, we didn't have to fight for our lives."

In the spring of 2006, the Flames claimed the Northwest Division title but were unable to match the intensity of the underdog Anaheim Ducks in the first round.

The premature playoff mindset, says McCarty, could be the difference if they carry that hunger over the next month or two.

"This is a good thing for us right now," explained McCarty. "It's stressful -- for everybody -- but as a hockey player at this time of year, there's no better thing."

With a 3-2 win over the Canucks in Vancouver Saturday, the previously impotent-away-from-home Flames completed a sweep of their four-game road trip, the final demon they needed to conquer in the regular season.

Well, unless you count the Colorado Avalanche, a team that has been clinging to playoff hopes despite the solid play of the group fending them off.

Calgary has a chance to end the suspense with a head-to-head battle tomorrow night against the Avs at the Saddledome (7 p.m., PPV).

A win or any loss by the Avalanche will clinch a post-season berth for the Flames but while that outlook is rosy, they're not ready to relax.

"The most important thing is to continue to build on what we've started to do here the last couple of weeks," said defenceman Robyn Regehr.

"We're playing a better game but we're always striving for that perfect game and that peak. I don't think we've reached that."

Fellow rearguard Rhett Warrener agrees the Flames can still ramp up their play.

"It's a bit premature to say we're peaking," Warrener said. "We're playing at a better level than we were but the playoffs are still another level. We've played tough teams but playing tough teams in the playoffs is different than playing them in the regular season."

The ridiculous notion that perhaps the Flames were playing possum recently has been mentioned but the idea is laughable to the players.

Sure, their best playoff run since claiming the Stanley Cup in '89 came as huge underdogs in 2004 but don't think for a second the Flames wouldn't rather have home-ice advantage.

"We're a team, if you look back through the entire season, there were a lot of ups and downs," said Regehr. "I don't think that we necessarily played to our identity, which is something you've heard a lot of the last few years."

It just took a dire situation for everyone to realize how they need to play.

"We had to win (these recent games) and we did. How we did those is playing playoff-style hockey," said Regehr.


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