Northwest Passage

RANDY SPORTAK -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 9:23 AM ET

The storm is blowing in.

Can you feel it?

Are you ready?

The Calgary Flames sure had better be braced for what's brewing or their playoff hopes will become dust in the wind.

Blown away in the NHL's version of a Nor'wester.

"This is the playoffs, it really is," said centre Craig Conroy. "You talk about it with all the cliches, 'Oh yeah, this is the playoffs. This is a playoff game.'

"These nine games really are the playoffs. We're all close, all right there.

"I think it's great for leading into the playoffs, because it's gonna be crazy, gonna be exciting."

It'll also be heartbreaking for at least one of the five Northwest Division squads when the regular season concludes April 6.

Between then and now, those five teams will face each other at least twice -- the exception is Calgary and Vancouver, who have three meetings down the stretch.

Considering Minnesota had a two-point edge on three teams, Vancouver, Calgary and Colorado, and with Edmonton sitting five points in arrears, it's about as tight a race as you can imagine. Maybe even closer than could be thought possible.

Anybody feel like choosing a winner?

"Does somebody get to play 83 games?" said Columbus coach Ken Hitchcock the other day. "It's unbelievable."

Also, you can't forget the Nashville Predators are in the mix, four points out of a playoff spot and with two games against each of their Central Division rivals remaining on the docket.

Oh yeah, of those six teams, it looks like only four can make the playoffs. That is, of course, barring an unlikely collapse by one of the three Pacific Division currently in the playoff picture, San Jose, Anaheim or Dallas, or a torrid finish by one of those teams currently outside the picture.

"You could look at the schedule before the year, halfway through, and say it's probably a good chance these nine games are going to be pretty important," said captain Jarome Iginla.

"As a team, you look at it as a great challenge and a fun thing. They're going to be packed buildings. The energy is gonna be huge. Each game is going to have some huge implications.

"The best part about it is you don't have to watch the standings or the highlights, you have a direct result.

"We're looking forward to it."

For the Flames, it's a chance to salvage a season that's been plagued by inconsistencies all season. Actually put it in the past.

Likewise with the club coming off a horrible road trip in which it lost three of four games against clubs that could very well miss the playoffs.

Iginla, ever the optimist, is hopeful that swoon will spur a major push at the biggest time of the year.

"Maybe it was what we needed as far as an eye-opener before we come home and start all these huge divisional games," he said.

As for what it'll take to make the playoffs or win the division, only time will tell.

The secret will be to survive the emotional wringer, coping with what happens in other games and not letting it rule the mind.

"You just don't want three-point games," Conroy said. "It doesn't matter who wins or who loses, you just don't want a three-point game. No more three-point games.

"Unless we get that extra point.

"As long as we're winning, it's OK to deal with. We get the opportunity to beat all those teams because we play all of them. You win your games, you're all set."

That's the biggest part of the situation. For the Flames -- and it's the case for all the Northwest teams except maybe Edmonton -- it's in their control.

They start tonight against Colorado at the 'Dome.

"Your own fate is in your hands," Conroy said. "We have an opportunity to do something, and you don't have to worry about anybody else winning or losing, you have to win your games.

"I'm looking forward to getting these going.

"This could be a huge game and we've got to believe it's that huge. They've been playing well and we've got to play better."


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