DETROIT — Six months ago, a showdown for eighth place between the Calgary Flames and the Detroit Red Wings wasn't expected at this time of year.
Yet, that's where the teams are heading into their Tuesday clash at the Joe Louis Arena.
“I’m sure it’s weird for guys who have been here longer than I have,” said Red Wings defenceman Brad Stuart of his club’s tenuous hold on eighth place in the NHL’s Western Conference. “We’ve got a good club and want to get in the playoffs, and that’s all that matters. We feel we have a good enough team to have a chance (for the Stanley Cup) again.
“For this team, this is the time of year where you’re near the top of the standings, resting guys a bit and getting ready for the playoffs. We don’t have that luxury, so it is a little bit different.
“There are no games off.”
Not with so much at stake against the Flames.
A Flames win would vault them over the Red Wings, the defending conference champs and 2008 Stanley Cup winners, into eighth spot with the race to the playoffs nearing sprint time.
A Wings victory would put the Flames further back in the Wings’ rear-view mirror.
Is it pressure-packed? You bet.
But Flames head coach Brent Sutter is sending the message to his team to enjoy the tension.
“You want to be intense, but you’ve also got to enjoy what you’re doing. It’s like playoffs, and playoffs is a fun time, right?” Sutter said, as a half-dozen skaters went through the paces of an optional practice Monday afternoon. “All we did was move the calendar up 30 days. Let’s enjoy it and enjoy doing it.
“If you keep dwelling on where you’re at, it becomes a weight-bearing thing and, mentally, becomes such a struggle. Would we like to be like some other teams? Sure. But we’re not. You can’t worry about where you wish you were. You’ve got to be focused on where you’re at and what you need to do.
“You have to think of it as a positive. ‘This is the situation we’re in. It’s like playoff hockey. Let’s enjoy it, and let’s get after it.’ ”
Both teams have gone at least a couple of months without a winning streak of note, but both head into the affair having won two straight games.
For the Wings, it’s a case of finally having a healthy lineup. Only three players have skated in every game — Stuart, Nicklas Lidstrom and Todd Bertuzzi.
For the Flames, it’s a case of finally scoring some goals. They’ve netted five in each of their last two games, and Sutter is most pleased those goals haven’t come at the expense of defensive play.
“(Friday) night, it was a 5-1 hockey game going into the last three minutes against New Jersey. (Sunday against Minnesota) was a 5-2 game. We’re scoring the goals, and our goals against is staying down where it should be,” Sutter said. “You’ve got to be good defensively, but you’ve got to be able to score some goals. It’s too tough a league to think you’re going to win every game 1-0 or 2-1. We’re finding ways to score goals because we’re doing things we needed to be doing earlier.
“It’s not different than how we wanted to play in September. It’s just now we seem to be more assertive about doing it. And by doing it, we’re getting rewarded.
“And when you get rewarded, there’s a confidence boost.”
With confidence comes that magic word which has been lacking around the Flames the past few months — fun.
“It should be fun,” said Flames defenceman Robyn Regehr. “That’s when you get the most out of players and teams, when guys are enjoying themselves and when guys work the hardest. We should enjoy the challenges. You don’t want to let them overwhelm you — just face them head-on and have fun.”