Flames face tall task

IAN BUSBY, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 8:03 PM ET

So much for the chinks in the armour.

So much for the Vancouver Canucks’ late-season swoon.

The West Coasters arrived in Calgary for a massive Northwest Division showdown showing the entire NHL why they are still No. 1, that they deserve their record.

And now the Canucks are looking for a sweep of a five-game road trip when they take on the Calgary Flames Saturday night on Hockey Night in Canada.

While the Canucks played an old-fashioned shootout Thursday, winning 5-4 over San Jose in a wild game decided in the skills competition, the Flames dropped a 3-0 decision in Phoenix.

If there was ever a time for the Flames to make a statement about staking a place in the Western Conference playoff race, this is the time.

Want to prove you belong among the top eight, beat the top team.

“We have to make sure we respond the right way,” said Flames head coach Brent Sutter. “We’re down to 12 games left. They are all such big ones. We’re still on pace where we want to be as far as our goals. Saturday is a big game for us.

“It’s a great challenge for us. We’re in a situation where we’re battling for a playoff seed. Vancouver obviously has a good team.”

It was after a rash of defensive injuries — to Kevin Bieksa, Alex Edler and Andrew Alberts — that the Canucks started to seem mortal in late February.

Over a span of 12 games, they lost six times in regulation and never had a two-game win streak.

That only slightly cooled them off.

Since Christmas, the Canucks have piled up 52 points, while the next-hottest Western Conference team, the Flames, have earned 48.

It’s amazing how the Canucks went through a ‘rough stretch’ where they were getting criticized even in wins that weren’t pretty.

During that same time, the Flames have taken the perceived mantle as the conference’s hottest club, but it’s not quite true.

Plus, there are no shortage of positive things happening for the Canucks this past week.

They moved to 11 points in front of second-place Detroit before the Red Wings played Friday in Edmonton. Barring a major change, they will have home-ice throughout the conference playoffs.

Not only did winger Mason Raymond come back and score a goal after missing a game due to a shoulder injury, they also got a debut from newcomer Christopher Higgins.

In a week or two, they could welcome back front-line defenceman Bieksa, who has skated on his own recently after breaking his foot Feb. 15.

With the league’s No.-1 and No.-3 scorers in Daniel and Henrik Sedin, the Canucks boast the NHL’s best powerplay, successful nearly a quarter of the time.

Sifting through the stats, there isn’t many categories in which the Canucks aren’t among the league’s best.

They are third in goals per game, first in goals-against, third in penalty killing and fourth in winning percentage when leading after the first period.

They have a sub-.500 shootout record, which is about the worst thing you can say about them, and even that doesn’t matter in the post-season.

The Canucks are clearly the Goliath heading down the stretch, and the Flames need to play David on Saturday night.

But there is another good reason the Flames need to win this outing and the season finale April 9 at the Saddledome.

If the Flames do sneak into the post-season, finishing in eighth spot would mean a date with these Canucks, and that’s not a matchup they really want, do they?

ian.busby@sunmedia.ca

twitter.com/ianbusby57


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