Pressure-cooker ending

STEVE MACFARLANE

, Last Updated: 8:52 AM ET

EDMONTON -- It seems the feelings of the Calgary Flames have finally matched those of the many fans who have been craving more.

Taking on desperate teams on a nightly basis has been status quo for the Flames the past couple of weeks.

"I'll tell you, we're pretty desperate now, too," said Jarome Iginla yesterday inside the visitors locker-room at Rexall Place.

"It's pretty amazing when you go 79 games and it comes down to these last three."

With the NHL's Northwest Division in a state of constant flux, and a handful of Western Conference teams battling to the end for three playoff seedings, the tension impassioned fans have been feeling is shared by the subjects of their obsession.

The Flames are seventh in the standings heading into tonight's action, which involves every one of the teams in play.

"I think the pressure's on everyone," said Robyn Regehr. "Not just us as individuals, and as a team, but on every other team."

With three games to go -- suddenly the most important trio of the entire season -- the Flames control their own destiny. But to make sure they clinch a playoff berth without any help from other teams, they have to win at least twice.

A win against Edmonton tonight would finally eliminate the threat of the Oilers overcoming the odds. But even that wouldn't be enough to keep the Nashville Predators off their backs should the Central Division hopeful win its final three games (two against St. Louis, and another against Chicago).

A division crown is still possible, but unlikely. The Flames would have to win out, and then root for the Colorado Avalanche to beat the Minnesota Wild on the final day of the regular-season.

So the focus of the fans has changed -- just make it to the playoffs, please -- and panic is beginning to spread.

Some drama should also be taking place in the locker-room, where the Flames held a lengthy meeting without practising yesterday.

"I think we need to show more emotion, more desperation," said Adrian Aucoin. "This is it for us. Three games left for us. Next weekend, we'll know where we're at.

"I know deep inside we know how good we are, we're just not playing that way right now."

The reason is anyone's guess. Theories are out there: They're a team that, in spite of its veteran leadership, is lacking accountability; A team that is too easily satisfied; A team that simply believes it will make it to the playoffs without working for the reward.

Even the players have to admit the switcheroo of them focusing on just making the post-season rather than seeking home-ice advantage is not what was expected despite the division-heavy finish to the schedule.

"I think everyone knew it was going to come down right to the end anyway, but what was on the line might have been different," said Regehr. "For us, our goal was the division. Now we've got to make sure we nail down a playoff spot, first."

Is this surprising, despite the inconsistencies that have plagued them all year?

"I think so," said Aucoin. "We just let that slip away. We didn't play up to our expectations, or anyone's expectations, and that's what puts us in this predicament.

"We're not just scrapping for first place, we're scrapping for our lives."

Much of the recent criticism of the Flames has been the lack of urgency (just another word for desperation) they've shown in games that could have made a difference. Facing hungry teams fearing elimination, they've failed to match that level.

Matching it might not even be enough, if you ask head coach Mike Keenan.

"You want the coach's answer? We need to play with more desperation, not just as much desperation, because we're not in the playoffs either," he said. "We're all concerned because of the position we're in -- you're either going to be in the playoffs or out of the playoffs by next Sunday."


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