If every game right now feels like a playoff game, Sunday night’s matchup with the Vancouver Canucks ought to seem like Game 7 of the Stanley Cup final.
It’s just the latest biggest game of the season for the Calgary Flames as they strive to guarantee themselves a spot in the NHL playoffs.
This one, though, comes against their grandest rival.
“It’s gonna be exciting. With Edmonton, we had a pretty good rivalry with them, too,” said Flames defenceman Steve Staios, who has had his share of meetings with the Canucks as a member of the Edmonton Oilers but suits up against them for the first time with the Flames. “It’s a three-team rivalry out in the west now. I don’t think it’s just the Battle of Alberta. That makes it fun, makes the games exciting and intense.”
As if this contest needed any more drama, it comes during a four-game Flames winning streak that has propelled them back into the playoff picture.
And they won’t give up on the idea a Northwest Division title is still possible even though the Canucks held a heavy eight-point lead prior to their game late Saturday.
“Right now, we feel like we have a chance maybe to catch them. The only way to do that is to beat them when we play them,” said Flames centre Craig Conroy, remembering how large a lead the Flames had last season before stalling late in the year and allowing a hot Canucks team to pass them. “We were in the same situation last year — it’s kind of flip-flopped — and they were able to catch us.”
With the Colorado Avalanche in the mix for that crown, it still seems a longshot for the Flames.
They’re in the mindset now of looking only at their next opponent, and it’s worked for them the last four games, as they’ve come away with wins over the New Jersey Devils, the Minnesota Wild, the Detroit Red Wings and the Ottawa Senators.
But no victory feels as good as one against the Canucks.
“For us, this is a great challenge at this time of year,” said Flames assistant coach Dave Lowry. “This is a team that’s in a position where we want to be.”
Despite an NHL-record 14-game road trip made necessary because of the Olympics, the Canucks managed to stay atop the division with an 8-5-1 record during the marathon trek.
“I really didn’t pay attention,” Conroy said of the trip. “We were having our own issues at that point. The only thing I noticed was where we were in the standings and that we had to make a move.
“Right now, we’re trying to do that.”
A fifth straight win would help the Flames.
Doing it against a rival in their own building would certainly help with confidence. And they’ll need all they can get with a tilt the following night back home in Calgary against the Detroit Red Wings.
Make it six in a row, and maybe catching the Canucks won’t seem so unlikely.
“We’re pretty far away,” Conroy added. “If we do (keep winning), we’ll see what happens, but there’s always a possibility.”