Down to the bitter end

STEVE MACFARLANE -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 9:50 AM ET

Half of their remaining games will be played within the division.

The latter half.

So for the Calgary Flames to avoid a situation where their playoff fate is determined in the final week of the regular-season, their next nine games are a prime opportunity to create some distance.

Tonight's game against the Ducks in Anaheim is the first of four straight against Western Conference squads. A two-game set in Washington and Atlanta spells the end of the eastern matchups before road games against Chicago and Columbus catapult the Flames into a frenzied finish during which they'll meet only Northwest Division opponents. They'll face the Vancouver Canucks three times, and the Colorado Avalanche, Minnesota Wild and Edmonton Oilers twice each.

"You don't want it to come down to the last two or three games, where it means everything," said Craig Conroy after practice yesterday at Father David Bauer Arena. "You want to put yourself in a good spot.

"The only way to do that is to win games consistently down the stretch here."

Mark Smith also sees the immediate importance of success knowing so many division matchups lie ahead.

"Definitely, we want to set ourselves up for that last little stretch," said Smith.

"You don't want to leave it down to the wire and have those games mean so much -- (determine) whether you're in or you're out (of the playoffs).

"It's very important to set us up for a good run here at the end, so we're not up against the wall."

Currently tied with the Minnesota Wild atop the division standings but behind based on tiebreakers, the Flames are in a good position.

As long as they keep winning, that is.

"We've put ourselves in a good spot. We're on top," said Conroy. "We're there with Minnesota, and if we just keep playing and moving forward, we don't have to worry about what (other teams) do, they have to worry about what we do."

Squeaking into the playoffs on the final day of the regular-season a little more than a year ago, the Flames confessed they might have been caught up in how close the standings were.

"Last year, we were maybe scoreboard-watching too much," said Conroy. "It's a lot of stress."

It's only natural to keep your eye on the matchups, though. While they enjoyed a day off Wednesday, many Flames players peeked at the game between the Canucks and Avalanche.

It was a worst-case scenario with the game going to a shootout and both teams trying to catch the Flames earning points.

That didn't go unnoticed by Dion Phaneuf.

"A little bit, yeah. You see them, and there's a lot of them, with the three-point system," he said. "For us and for every other team, every game, there's three points available. And games are so tight at this time of year, that's just part of (the race)."

Alex Tanguay was watching, and while he says he isn't cheering for other teams to lose, he did talk to the TV when he saw it was headed to overtime.

"Come on! Not everybody can get points," he recalled with a laugh.

The importance of home-ice advantage when the playoffs begin will probably be determined by the head-to-head battles over the final week. But jockeying for the division lead and locking up a berth in the post-season are two different things.

"That's the main focus right now. You want to secure yourself a playoff spot as early as possible," said Tanguay.

"If it comes down to the end and you're waiting for other teams, you never know what may happen.

"We're in a position where if we win, we take care of our own destiny."

And then there won't be a need for yelling at the TV come April.


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