Improvement needed despite Flames' breathing room

RANDY SPORTAK, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 9:23 AM ET

Winning ugly doesn't matter at this time of the year.

Certainly not for the Calgary Flames.

Not with the NHL's playoff push in full swing.

This week's three intra-divisional games against Vancouver, Minnesota and Edmonton were all about getting some breathing room in the Flames' quest for the Northwest Division crown.

Having earned three of a possible four points prior to tonight's game in Edmonton, you could say it's been a solid enough effort so far.

"We're proud of ourselves for getting here, but we know there's still a lot of room for improvement," defenceman Adrian Aucoin said.

"The last week and a half and the losing streak ahead of that, we know it, so it's time to make things better."

The results are solid. The route to those three points hasn't been pretty.

Tuesday's 4-3 shootout loss to Vancouver came thanks to two late-period goals, including the game-tying tally in the final minute of regulation.

Thursday's 3-2 overtime victory in Minnesota wasn't the Flames finest performance, as they were dominated at times.

In those games, Calgary surrendered too many shots and scoring chances, struggled on the powerplay and gave up a pair of shorthanded goals.

About the only constant has been the top-shelf play of goaltender Miikka Kiprusoff.

But, when all is said and done, they grabbed an important three points.

"It's a confidence thing to know we didn't play our best and still came out with points," said Aucoin, whose OT game winner made him the hero in Minnesota.

"But that being said, we still know we have to be a lot better. All the teams in our division seem to be stepping it up because it's playoff time for them, and we know we can make it easier for ourselves if we take care of business now."

Which means finding a more complete and consistent game very soon.

"You see we're doing good things in games, but we're doing some terrible things, too," defenceman Cory Sarich said.

"It's finding a way to bring it all together, and that's our biggest struggle right now. (In Minnesota), we played a good first and a good third period, but we can't be happy about the second for letting it get away a bit.

"The structure of our team gives us a chance, but it's got to sharpen up."

Which is not as easy as it sounds. Sure, it seems a simple concept -- follow the game plan -- but it's more like putting a puzzle together.

Head coach Mike Keenan certainly has reason for complaints about his team's performances of late, but the reality right now is about taking steps forward on the ice and steps upward in the standings, and he has to balance the two.

"On the road, it doesn't matter where you're playing, it's going to be difficult," Keenan said. "We're going to be up against a desperate team in Edmonton, and divisional games right now are critical. Teams are lined up trying to get into the playoffs. We tried to separate ourselves from that group and continue to do so, yet Vancouver is winning and still only eight points behind us."

So just keeping the Canucks at arm's length is what you ultimately want through a tough stretch of games.

"The fortunate or unfortunate part of our schedule in this league right now is you have to be on top of it every night because there are so many teams in the west, in my opinion, still in it," Keenan stated. "You'll be in a very competitive game each and every night."


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