SUN Hockey Pool

Flames' subplots

Calgary Flames, Lee Stempniak comes close to scoring on Colorado Avalanche goalie, Jean-Sebastien...

Calgary Flames, Lee Stempniak comes close to scoring on Colorado Avalanche goalie, Jean-Sebastien Giguere, at the Scotiabank Saddledome. Wednesday October 26, 2011. (QMI Agency/Darren Makowichuk)

Scott Fisher, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 6:45 PM ET

With apologies to the '80s band Europe, this is 'The Final Countdown'

The Calgary Flames have been in a life-and-death NHL struggle for their playoff lives for months now.

But with nine games left, there truly is no room for error.

And with two of three games -- all on the road -- against fellow playoff hopefuls this week, it's now or never.

1. WELCOME BACK

Lee Stempniak's return spelled the end of the Sven Baertschi call-up.

Stempniak returned to action Sunday for the first time since suffering an ankle injury Feb. 3, playing on a line with David Moss and Blake Comeau.

How quickly the streaky Stempniak can bang off the rust and contribute down the stretch will be key for the Flames, who need someone other than captain Jarome Iginla filling the net.

The Flames enter the week having lost 351 man-games to injury but are looking forward to getting forwards Tim Jackman and Lance Bouma back this week.

That leaves Chris Butler, Michael Cammalleri, Mikael Backlund, Blair Jones and T.J. Brodie in sick bay.

2. WORKING OVERTIME

Don't be surprised if Tuesday's tilt in Denver requires more than 60 minutes.

The Colorado Avalanche have picked up points in five straight, including four consecutive games that required extra time.

The Flames will want to see the game end in regulation time, during which the Avs have been shut out eight times this season, to avoid giving their Northwest Division rivals any extra points.

Plus if the game goes to a shootout, it's bad news for the visitors. The Avs are 9-2 in shootouts, while the Flames are just 3-7.

On the bright side, the Flames have had the Avs' number lately, winning five straight this campaign and nine in a row dating back to last season.

But this one looks like a goaltender's battle -- Avs puckstopper Semyon Varlamov has won his last four starts and nine of his last 11, and we all know what the Flames' Miikka Kiprusoff brings to the crease.

3. MIRACLE HEALER

What's in the water in Denver?

Avalanche young-gun Matt Duchene was expected to miss at least four weeks with a right-ankle injury.

He ended up sitting out just four games, saying he'd rather play with pain than miss the playoff push.

The 21-year-old might be a quick healer, but his production isn't as impressive. The third-year centre picked up an assist in Saturday's 3-1 win over the New York Rangers, but he's scored just one goal since Christmas.

Duchene is 40 points off the pace he set during his sophomore season, when he finished with a career-high 67 points in 2010-11.

4. NOT WILD ABOUT MARCH

The Minnesota Wild used to be one of the teams jockeying for a playoff spot in the Western Conference.

Not anymore.

The bottom has fallen out on the Wild's season in '12.

They have one win in eight games this month with the Vancouver Canucks and are looking to add to the pain Monday night.

The Wild have gone 8-19-4 since the calendar turned, going from potential playoff team to draft lottery contender.

They collapsed Saturday, blowing a 3-1 lead to lose 5-3 to the visiting Carolina Hurricanes.

After a fifth straight loss on home ice, Wild head coach Mike Yeo summed it up best: "We're in hell. It's not fun."

The Flames need to take advantage of the Wild, a team they've won four straight against since being blanked 3-0 Nov. 8 at the Dome.

5. SEEING STARS

As important as Tuesday's divisional clash with the Avalanche is, the home-and-home series with the Dallas Stars could decide the Flames' fate.

Sweeping the Stars would deal a serious blow to one of the six teams fighting for a trio of playoff spots in the Western Conference.

Back-to-back losses would put the Flames in a hole that would likely prove to be too deep.

The Stars have a 20-13-3 record at the American Airlines Center, but the Phoenix Coyotes and the Vancouver Canucks visit Dallas before the Flames arrive for the first half of the crucial home-and-home set.

The Stars also have the most difficult remaining schedule of the six playoff contenders. Their 10 remaining opponents had a combined winning percentage of .592 going into Sunday's action.

The combined winning percentage of the foes faced by the Flames and the Avalanche was both .571.

scott.fisher@sunmedia.ca

On Twitter: @SUNScottFisher

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STRENGTH OF SCHEDULE

Dallas Stars .592

Calgary Flames .571

Colorado Avalanche .571

L.A. Kings .560

San Jose Sharks .557

Phoenix Coyotes .556


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