SUN Hockey Pool

'Crucial time' for trip

STEVE MACFARLANE

, Last Updated: 8:07 AM ET

CHICAGO -- Six games don't normally have the kind of impact the next half-dozen contests will have on their season.

With the team playing well but getting minimal results recently and the Christmas break creeping closer by the day, it's now or never for the Calgary Flames.

Continue lingering near the bottom of the Western Conference standings by the time Santa makes his rounds a couple of weeks from now and a playoff spot becomes likely as a real-life spotting of the Jolly Old Elf himself.

But return from the lengthy road trip that begins today in Chicago (5 p.m., Sportsnet) with at least eight or 10 points and the Flames should find themselves right in the middle of the playoff pack with a couple of home games to improve their standing before the holiday break.

"It is a crucial time," said Flames captain Jarome Iginla Friday.

"It's going to be the halfway point before we know it.

"We have to make ground up. It's a big trip in lot of ways."

Iginla is well aware of the unofficial halfway marker that gives teams a reasonable idea of how desperate their next three-and-a-half months will be in terms of the post-season race.

"We've got to play well to get ourselves right in that actual playoff cluster. We're looking (up) at a lot of teams right now," said Iginla.

"You want to be in the hunt. It's right around that time. There's always going to be a bunch of teams that are together ... you've got to be in it and ready to make your move."

With a 4-6 record on the road this season, some would say the odds are stacked against the Flames making any kind of surge during nearly a dozen days away from home.

But with games against Chicago, Florida, Tampa Bay, Carolina, St. Louis and Columbus, there should be no lack of motivation.

All can be considered middle-of-the-road teams.

Even a relatively hot St. Louis squad the Flames beat during their four-game homestand to start the month. And the Blackhawks, Blues and Blue Jackets are three of those teams the Flames can make moves on in the Western Conference.

"Chicago is a team that we want to catch. They're ahead of us and they're playing well," said Iginla, who throws the Blues and Jackets into the mix while stating the Flames will avoid looking at the big picture now they have left home.

"Those are all four-point games (against teams) we want to catch. It's a good challenge for us, this roadtrip, but you like that. I think we're starting to turn the corner and we're going to keep playing like this -- we'll get results."

Even if you consider the quality of opposition favourable, that they're on the road adds a degree of difficulty.

"To be out on the road that long is challenging," said head coach Mike Keenan.

But his players say they're up for it.

"We've got to enjoy it and be positive about it," said Matthew Lombardi. "Be excited for it."

Defenceman Anders Eriksson is excited. Partly because of the situation they're in and the relief the road may bring in terms of attention.

"It's an important part of the season. I think it could be a great thing to go on the road and not have to worry about fans or, in a sense, media, and just go out and play the way we can," said Eriksson.

"Everybody realizes where we're at in the season and where we are in the standings. It is crucially important, but at the same time you have to embrace that and take it as a challenge."


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