Flames focus for home stretch

STEVE MACFARLANE, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 8:51 AM ET

Winning their last game sent the Calgary Flames into the all-star break on a high note, but they know how tough the next couple of months are going to be.

Locking up the Northwest Division is all but a sure thing if they continue their strong play over the final 36 games of the season.

But they're looking at the next step now -- the Detroit Red Wings and the second seed.

With a nine-point lead over the Edmonton Oilers and a gap of eight between themselves and the Central Division leading Wings, the Calgary crew will enjoy the short break before getting back to business.

"At this point of the year, it's a grind. And there's still a lot of hockey to be played," said winger Eric Nystrom.

"Anything to get away from the stresses of the game and the mental challenges the game offers, it's nice to get away and get a breather once in a while."

Weekends such as the one they suffered before beating the Columbus Blue Jackets in a 5-4 shootout Wednesday to erase back-to-back losses will have to be a thing of the past if they have any hope of catching the defending Stanely Cup champions.

Three games in four nights, with back-to-back contests at the tail end, will take place four times before the end of the season. And the first two weeks of April will see all six of their games come in pairs on consecutive evenings.

They didn't fare well against the Phoenix Coyotes at the Saddledome and the Colorado Avalanche this past Saturday and Sunday.

After the disappointing losses, head coach Mike Keenan said the team wasn't looking for excuses, but that sometimes there are reasons for performances like theirs.

Carrying a high from beating the Sharks in San Jose into two games that came less than 24 hours apart was a tough task. Of that there is no doubt.

"We couldn't meet the demands of the schedule," said Keenan. "That's a demanding scenario."

Great teams, however, find ways to get wins in spite of the schedule they face.

"We're going to be a team that's right near the top the rest of the year and we've got to make sure that when the schedule gets like that, we're showing up for those games," said defenceman Jim Vandermeer.

"The last third of the season is where teams really come together or kind of fall by the wayside."

Every team gets tired. It's impossible not to when playing such a physical game every couple of nights.

When the schedule gets even more compressed -- the Flames will play their last 36 games in 74 nights after this weekend's festivities -- the mind has to perservere.

"I think the mental component is the most important, and is the biggest component of the successful teams," said Keenan. "Because most teams, particularly today, are closely matched in the physical component."

Getting back to work Monday, the Flames will still be one of the most fit teams in the league. While enjoying their rest, they'll continue to work out off the ice.

Whether or not they make strides on the mental side of things remains to be seen.

It'll certainly be put to the test early as they host the Nashville Predators Jan. 30 before heading to Denver and Dallas Feb. 2 and 3.

"It's just being mentally prepared. We're in good enough shape," said Nystrom. "We're strong enough mentally. We've just got to go in and compete. The good teams find a way to dig. The last back-to-back we had wasn't that great, and we learned from that."

We'll find out soon enough.


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