The Calgary Flames had plenty of reason to smile yesterday.
Top spot in the Northwest Division standings. A fun-filled practice. And an afternoon off to finish their Christmas shopping.
"You almost need a day like that," said veteran pivot Craig Conroy after a light-hearted practice session yesterday at the Saddledome, an hour-long skate that included a 3-on-3 scrimmage and relay race.
"It's such a grind. It's been serious, serious, serious -- we weren't happy with the outcome the other night -- and then to come in and have kind of a fun practice ...
"It's like when you're a little kid. It's an early-morning practice, but you come in, have fun, and move on."
For the past three weeks, the Flames have been spending the bulk of their time on airplanes, in hotels or at the rink, but a four-day break between games gives the players a chance to recharge their batteries.
Following Friday's 3-2 overtime loss to the visiting Chicago Blackhawks, the Flames had Saturday off before returning to the ice yesterday to prepare for tomorrow's tilt with the Anaheim Ducks.
"We played the four-game road trip, home for one, then gone for two back-to-back," Conroy said. "It was a grind -- all those different time zones, battling through it. Guys have had colds and stuff like that, so to get home and have a few days just to relax, let your body heal up a little bit and not be pounded and have all the travel, it's going to be fun.
"And Christmas is coming, so we're going to get another little break."
After a hectic November and nine games in the first two-and-a-half weeks of this month, the Flames could certainly use an extra day or two to heal some of the bumps and bruises that come with the rigours of the NHL schedule.
After logging a team-leading 27:20 of ice time against the 'Hawks, Dion Phaneuf didn't take the ice yesterday, but the Flames' star blueliner is expected to be in the lineup tomorrow.
"He's been playing a lot, so we gave him an additional day off," said head coach Mike Keenan. "He's had the most minutes, obviously -- he played 30 minutes in Minnesota, for example -- so we gave him a little extra time."
With Curtis Glencross (leg), Wayne Primeau (foot) and Brandon Prust (broken jaw) still on the shelf, the Flames forward ranks were also a little thin yesterday.
Jamie Lundmark was reassigned to Quad City Saturday, leaving the Flames with a hole to fill up front. Unless one of the regulars is ready to return, the club will likely summon someone from the minors.
Lundmark and Warren Peters have both skated with the big club already this season, while wingers Kyle Greentree and Kris Chucko are putting up impressive numbers on the farm.
Keenan said he was satisfied with what he saw from Lundmark, who had a pair of assists during his three-game stint with the Flames.
"Jamie helped us," Keenan said. "He contributed. He had a lot of minutes in different situations -- 5-on-5 and powerplay -- and we had a good evaluation of him."