SUN Hockey Pool

Flames show signs of life

STEVE MACFARLANE -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 9:46 AM ET

When the puck dropped on Saturday's Battle of Alberta rematch, the Calgary Flames were a floundering team stuck in eighth spot in the NHL's Western Conference.

Seven teams above them in the standings, seven teams below. The very definition of average.

By the time the 4-1 win was in the books -- and despite moving up only one spot in the standings -- the Flames were viewed as a team that could find themselves in a much higher position by the end of the regular season 55 days from now.

In a season where every game seems pivotal in the NHL -- especially in the Western Conference -- the Flames embark on another "do-or-die" road trip.

Heading out for the trek across the Pacific Division that starts tonight against the San Jose Sharks (8:30 p.m., pay-per-view), the Flames will need a trip reminiscent of December's season-saving sojourn if separation is going to take place in the Northwest.

Winning the division title could mean the difference between a top-three spot and a seventh or eighth seeding, or even a non-playoff position, at the finish line.

"That's our goal," said Flames captain Jarome Iginla of the division crown. "That's a big part of the standings. You can't count on other teams. Someone's winning, and we want it to be us."

For it to be the Flames -- and not the Minnesota Wild, Colorado Avalanche or Vancouver Canucks -- standing on top of the heap a couple of months from now, the team will need more efforts like the one that came Saturday against the Edmonton Oilers, and the elimination of those that resemble the 5-0 loss to the same team to start last week.

"Now we can just build on it," said Craig Conroy of the victory that sends them on the road on a positive note. "We were much more physical as a team."

The heavy hitting, both with fists and shoulders, was a throwback to the 2004 Flames identity. This collection of players is much more skilled and less inclined to throw their weight around, but they have shown they can.

"At some point, there was almost more guys in the penalty box than there was in the bench," said Owen Nolan with a laugh of the rough stuff that filled the early part of the first period to set the tone Saturday. "It shows the type of emotion our team can play with. There's no limitations if we keep playing that way."

With the third and fourth lines playing more obvious roles, the ice time went up for them.

Conroy, Eric Godard and Dustin Boyd led the hit parade. And when it came to fighting, even Matthew Lombardi got into the act by dropping the gloves with Oilers blueliner Ladislav Smid.

"That shows how tight our team is," said Nolan. "There's a big scrum there and even our smallest guys are getting in there. Whether they're outweighed or outmatched, they're going to give it their all."

One game, even if it was their best since the all-star break, can either be an anomaly or the start of a trend.

"It's something to build on," said Conroy. "We can't just say, 'Well we did it once.' We've got to be consistent and do it down the stretch, because it is so tight.

"We feel we're better, but it doesn't matter what we feel, we have to prove it."

Daymond Langkow agrees the Flames should challenge for a top seed.

"I think we can do it. I think we've got the guys in here," he said. "Everybody needs to show up every night, and that's what we need to win games. We need all four lines.

"We need to be getting better every game."

While the Flames don't view themselves as a middle-of-the-pack team, the parity has made it hard for anyone other than the Detroit Red Wings to rise above the massive group fighting for the other seven seeds.

"We haven't played better than that, though, at times," admitted Conroy when asked about his thoughts on their position. "But a lot of teams are like that. It's been a weird year, for not just us, a lot of teams. It seems like it's been a real roller-coaster for everybody.

"We're finding ourselves as a team as we move forward. That's what we've gotta do."

With 17 of their final 26 games coming on the road, they'll have to find their December magic, too.

But Iginla views every game as critical at this point.

"I mean, if we were home for the next three, we'd be talking about how important those home ones are. It's the way it is now," he said.

"We know we're going to be playing a lot of road games. We're going to have to be gritty like we were on that last string on the road. I thought we really picked the tough part of our game up in the tough areas, and we're going to have to do that again."

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DECEMBER ROAD TRIP

Dec. 9: At Chicago

Flames 3 Blackhawks 2

Dec. 11: At Florida

Flames 2 Panthers 1 (SO)

Dec. 13: At Tampa

Flames 9 Lightning 6

Dec. 14: At Carolina

Flames 4 Hurricanes 3

Dec. 16: At St. Louis

Flames 5 Blues 3

Dec. 18: At Columbus

Flames 3 Blue Jackets 1

FEBRUARY ROAD MAP

Tonight: At San Jose, 8:30 p.m., pay-per-view

Friday: At Los Angeles, 8:30 p.m., Sportsnet

Sunday: At Anaheim, 6 p.m., Sportsnet

Feb. 19: At Phoenix, 7:30 p.m., pay-per-view

Feb. 20: At Dallas, 6:30 p.m., TSN


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