Plenty left to play for

STEVE MACFARLANE

, Last Updated: 9:03 AM ET

VANCOUVER -- Don't try to tell the Flames they didn't earn their post-season berth.

Having lost 3-1 to the Minnesota Wild Thursday night, they didn't -- by the most common definition -- win to get in, but ...

"We did win to get in," interrupted head coach Mike Keenan.

"We won 92 points. We won enough hockey games to put us in. We don't perceive it at all (as backing in)."

A win over the Vancouver Canucks tonight in their last game of the regular season will convince at least a few of the doubters the Flames deserve to be there. Posting a 5-7 record in their previous dozen contests had many losing faith in what has been a puzzling group all season long.

And there's still plenty on the line.

"The game is still important for a lot of reasons," Jarome Iginla said yesterday after an optional practice at GM Place. "We haven't solidified where we are in the standings. We can still go as high as sixth."

With the unsettling finish thus far, he adds it's also "important to go (into the playoffs) feeling good."

Another reason brings a wide grin to his face as he says it.

"Also, it's Vancouver," he said, smiling at the local reporter. "We love to play and, more important, to beat them."

The seeding consequences may be more important than any of them are willing to let on.

The players and coaches will tell you it doesn't matter who they face in the first round, and that every team is capable of coming out on top.

Looking at the potential battles, though, it doesn't take a genius to see that the best matchup -- at least on paper -- would be against the Northwest Division champion Wild.

"I would say that if you were -- I don't know if the word is seduced into thinking that but -- fooled into thinking that anything would be easy," said Keenan, temporarily cutting himself short.

"Any of the results in the regular season now can be washed away."

Maybe not easy, but certainly easier.

Not that any win could be considered simple during the most competitive season the NHL has seen in decades.

Maybe ever.

"It wasn't easy," centre Craig Conroy said of making the playoffs.

"It's been a long season. There's been a lot of goods, bads ... Everyone's like, 'Why don't you just run away with the division?' Well, it's not that easy."

If the Flames seemed stressed the past couple of weeks, it's because they were.

Tension isn't reserved just for the playoffs anymore. Trying to qualify is just as nerve-racking.

"It feels like we've been through a round, for sure," said Iginla.

"Actually, it felt like the last probably eight games, at least, were literally like Game 6s and 7s of playoffs. We played a lot of close games, and tight games which I think are going to help us.

"Whether we won them or not, we were dealing with the excitement and the nerves and the intensity."

They lost the majority of them, but because the playoffs don't actually start until next week, the Flames live to see another round. A real round.

"People thought we backed in in '04," said Conroy, remembering the run to the final series before the lockout, excited to have another shot at the Cup.

"You have to be in, though. Vancouver, Edmonton, they don't have a chance. You have to be in.

"Whatever people say, in here we're ready to roll."

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SCENARIOS

FLAMES FINISH SIXTH IF ...

They beat Vancouver tonight and Colorado loses at home to Minnesota in regulation time tomorrow.

FLAMES FINISH SEVENTH IF ...

They lose to the Canucks or they beat the Canucks and Colorado beats Minnesota.


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