Road to the finish

STEVE MACFARLANE -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 9:05 AM ET

It's the most wonderful time of the year, according to Jarome Iginla.

It's also the most critical.

With the all-star break behind them and 32 games in 67 days on the horizon, the Calgary Flames embark on their playoff drive a single point out of the third seed and just a pair ahead of the ninth, heading into last night's action.

"This time of year, after the all-star game, feels like that last push that everybody has," said the Flames captain, whose team gets back into action against the San Jose Sharks tonight at the Saddledome (7:30 p.m., TSN).

There's no room for any sort of losing streak.

Even back-to-back losses will be costly.

At least there's no time to dwell on any negativity thanks to the compacted schedule that will have the Flames focusing on five-game stretches from now until April 5.

By then, they hope to be entrenched in a playoff position.

"These games are going to go quick. It kind of gears up to the playoffs when every team's in the same boat," said Iginla.

"I find this the most fun time of the regular season. We look forward to it."

Every game is important the rest of the way, but here's a look at some especially pivotal sections of the remaining schedule:

THE LONG ROAD TO SUCCESS

- Five games in nine nights (Feb. 12-20) -- at San Jose, at L.A., at Anaheim, at Phoenix, at Dallas:

They've had success on the road so far (13-9-1), but a tough 10-day trek in mid-February will go a long way in determining whether the Flames will be battling to be the division's best or just trying to make the playoffs come March.

There's no such thing as an easy outing in today's game, but things get especially tough when you see the San Jose Sharks, defending champion Anaheim Ducks and defensively dominant Dallas Stars on the itinerary.

Throw in Wayne Gretzky's determined Desert Dogs to kick off a back-to-back portion of the six-game trip, and a feisty and hungry Los Angeles Kings squad that should be looking for revenge after a 6-1 thrashing at the Saddledome in their last meeting.

tested by the best

- Flames vs. Wings (Feb. 22):

One last chance to show they can hold their own against the Detroit Red Wings.

The Wings have manhandled the Flames so far this season, outscoring Calgary 13-6 in their first three meetings.

To be considered one of the best, you have to be able to beat the best.

IN THE HEAT OF THE FIGHT

- Key division battles (Feb. 24 at Minny, Feb. 26 vs. Colorado):

The Western Conference standings will often shuffle over the next couple of months, and only two of the team's last 32 contest come against Eastern opponents.

Every other game could directly affect the Flames' positioning, and none more than the 13 intra-division games against Northwest foes from Edmonton, Vancouver, Minnesota and Colorado.

Two important outings come in the final week of February with a noon matchup on the road against the Wild on the 24th, followed by a 7 p.m. home date against the Avalanche -- two of their closest competitors in the league's tightest division.

A true sprint to the finish begins March 20, when the Flames kick off a stretch of nine straight battles against division rivals to end the regular season.

ALL'S WELL THAT ENDS WELL

- Final road trip (March 30-April 5) -- at Vancouver, at Edmonton, at Minnesota, at Vancouver: An odd bit of scheduling has the Flames bookending their last outing with separate dates on the coast. Sandwiched in between are visits to Edmonton and Minnesota, which will make for some serious hopscotch travel considering they play five games over the final eight nights of the regular season.

After a home date against the Oilers on Hockey Night in Canada, the Flames face the Canucks in Vancouver 24 hours later. They hop over to Edmonton, then visit the Wild in St. Paul before venturing back to GM Place in Vancouver for the finale April 5.

These head-to-head matchups could be the deciding factor in who comes out on top of the Northwest Division battle.


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