ST. PAUL, Minn -- It's only a few days past Halloween and the Calgary Flames are already watching the standings extremely closely.
The NHL slate has barely begun -- the Flames are only a baker's dozen into the season -- but the coming few weeks may have a big impact on where they end up come year's end.
Beginning with tonight's clash in Minnesota against the Wild, the Flames play eight straight games against fellow Northwest Division squads.
You bet they're well aware of the impact these clashes could have on their playoff hopes and where they end up in the standings.
"There's something at stake that means a lot for all the teams involved," head coach Mike Keenan said yesterday after cancelling practice.
In the coming spell, Calgary faces their four Northwest rivals -- Minnesota, Colorado, Edmonton and Vancouver -- twice each. A rough ride will be tough to recover from, and a middling performance will be a wasted opportunity.
But a strong run could mean big things for the Flames, who currently sit one point back of both Minnesota and Colorado, the two clubs they face in their two-game road trip.
"We want to move up in the standings, and there's certainly no better way than doing it in our own division," said left-winger Alex Tanguay, who's heated up with eight points in four games. "First spot in our division guarantees us one of the top three spots in the conference, and that's what we're aiming at.
"I think that's where the focus is going to be the next couple of weeks."
Seeing as both teams they're about to face are in the windshield and not the rear-view mirror, the Flames have extra incentive to earn a win or two, but Tanguay is quick to point out he and his teammates don't need any more motivation.
"For us right now, the main focus is to win. We lost one last night (Thursday) and you don't want to have a losing skid longer than one game," he said. "If you don't have that, you'll be successful through the year."
Another key to success is beating teams above them in the standings, something the Flames haven't managed this year. They've lost all four games against clubs currently sitting atop their divisions.
It's an alarming trend, but one that Tanguay isn't concerning himself with too much. "It's just hockey. If we play our game against anybody, we'll be fine," he said.
That said, there are plenty of elements for the Flames to ponder coming off their seven-game homestand in which they posted a 4-2-1 mark.
Their penalty kill is still floundering, especially in first periods, their powerplay hasn't clicked often enough at key moments and they haven't been putting together 60-minute performances on a consistent basis.
"Again, I draw the conclusion our team is learning how to win," Keenan said.
"We fluctuated our performance levels from game to game -- some were inspirational and some were not so great -- so we really covered a lot of area in terms of our skills and team play. I think we have to try find a solution to the fluctuations we've had."