SUN Hockey Pool

Time for Flames to make hay

RANDY SPORTAK -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 8:55 AM ET

Two wins, two nails in other teams' coffins.

It's a perfect way to begin an all-important stretch for the Calgary Flames.

With the countdown on to the end of the regular season -- it concludes a month from today -- the Flames are in the early stages of a golden opportunity to complete their quest for a playoff spot.

Their first eight games of March -- which includes the victories claimed against the Phoenix Coyotes and the Columbus Blue Jackets -- are all against teams that were outside the playoff picture when the calendar flipped from February.

That list even includes tomorrow night's opponent, the Nashville Predators, who have managed to climb to eighth position but could be back on the outside after they face the Canucks in Vancouver tonight.

With each game, it's not only an opportunity to inch closer to the Northwest Division title the Flames are in a dog fight for, but also crimp the hopes of a rival.

"We're made aware of that, for sure," said defenceman David Hale yesterday.

"It's pushing them down, and that's what we want to do -- push them down and keep climbing up."

Sure, they didn't eliminate the Coyotes a few days back or polish off the Blue Jackets with that 1-0 win Tuesday, but the Flames created all-important separation.

Columbus is now nine points back with 14 games remaining. It'll take a miracle for the Blue Jackets to overtake the Flames. In fact, when they meet March 18 -- the final game in Calgary's string of matches with non-playoff squads -- it might spell the end of those hopes.

The Coyotes, who the Flames beat twice in the desert within a couple of weeks earlier this season, were eight points behind before facing the Dallas Stars last night and have 15 tilts left on the slate.

Not that Hale and his teammates can afford to see things that way.

Must be the memory of the Colorado Avalanche's incredible push late last season.

"If a team goes on a streak, it's possible for them to catch other teams and mess things up," Hale said. "You can't give any team any sort of momentum or any sort of life."

That message was reaffirmed during the close match against the Blue Jackets, a contest Calgary won thanks to an all-world goaltending performance from Miikka Kiprusoff.

"Every team is desperate for points, but some are really pressing right now because they're on the outside," said head coach Mike Keenan.

"Not that the other teams aren't pressing, that was a very intense game in Anaheim -- they're trying to catch Dallas, so there are a lot of competitive factors involved.

"You'll see the upgrade in intensity now."

Which is a reason the Flames aren't looking at their coming games in a big picture sort of way. Looking at the schedule with the mindset it's a series of games against non-playoff teams would be the worst way to go.

"That's pretty dangerous for us to do," Hale explained. "Earlier in the year, when we've done that, we've been pretty inconsistent.

"We're a team that can't come out relaxed. We can not come out thinking that way. We've got to think every team is good, every team is capable of making a run and beating us. If we do that, come out with that mentality, we're better.

"There was probably the spell we had the mind set, 'These teams were below us in the standings' and we relaxed a bit. I think we learned from that and now we're pushing ahead."

The Flames have to push ahead during this spell.

Once they're done facing this crop of teams, they play nine games against fellow Northwest Division squads to finish the campaign.

Even a clean sweep won't ensure the Flames a division title. Those games will certainly be important, but a strong spell prior to then could mean all-important breathing room.

"The teams are so close. You've seen the fluctuations in the standings," Keenan said. "You can be in eighth place and go to twelfth or you can be in sixth and go to eighth or sixth and go to third.

"The fluctuations are still going to be there until we can get more separation.

"We're moving up from that eighth and final spot in terms of points. We have to continue to make that separation."

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MAKIN' 8?

- 3-1 win March 1 vs. Phoenix Coyotes (33-28-5 record, 6-2-1 last 10 games)

- 1-0 win March 4 vs. Columbus Blue Jackets (30-28-10 record, 4-5-1 last 10 games)

- Tomorrow vs. Nashville Predators (34-25-8 record, 5-3-2 last 10 games)

- Monday vs. St. Louis Blues (29-28-10 record, 3-6-1 last 10 games)

- Wednesday, March 12 at Washington Capitals (32-28-8 record, 5-3-2 last 10 games)

- Thursday, March 13 at Atlanta Thrashers (29-32-7 record, 2-5-3 last 10 games)

- Sunday, March 16 at Chicago Blackhawks (33-28-6 record, 7-3-0 last 10 games)

- Tuesday, March 18 at Columbus Blue Jackets (30-28-10 record, 4-5-1 last 10 games)


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