Playoff dry run critical

RANDY SPORTAK -- Calgary Sun

, Last Updated: 4:52 PM ET

 The plan wasn't hatched in a laboratory.

 It didn't take a think-tank to decide how to focus the troops in the final push to the playoffs.

  No, Darryl Sutter's concoction -- to break the final 28 games into four best-of-seven series to emulate the post-season -- came while driving on the open road.

 "True story," the Flames GM-head coach said yesterday. "I drove on the all-star break to watch my son (Brett) play (for the WHL's Kootenay Ice). I was driving home thinking about, 'OK, now we have got to practice tomorrow' all that stuff and what we were going to do (to make the playoffs)."

 Then it hit him.

 "It was just 28 divided by four," he explained. "Between Frank Slide and Longview, geez, you can think about lots of stuff."

 Sutter's idea was to keep his players on task to make the playoffs, believing that if they won all four "series" they'd reach that goal. It has turned out better than even he could have imagined.

 Not only did they win each of those sets, they've won three more in the post-season and need one more victory to make it a run to the Stanley Cup title. They'll get that chance tonight when they play host to Tampa Bay with a 3-2 lead in the best-of-seven final.

 "You know how you get them to believe it and buy into it? Because they all wanted to make the playoffs so bad," Sutter explained.

 "You have to remember, we had a lot of guys that weren't in the playoffs the year before or had never been. You have to understand that to them it was like an endless journey. So, to able to break that up for them, that gave them a focus."

 The plan may not have flown with, say a Colorado or Detroit, but to the yearning Flames, it made perfect sense.

 In more ways than one. Not only did the decision help them focus on smaller goals, it's helped when the games became bigger.

 Part of the plan was to treat the seventh game of each so-called series like a do-or-die contest in their minds. Curiously, they went 1-3 in the seventh games but the only one they needed to clinch a series resulted in a 7-1 pounding of Colorado.

 "We had a fairly inexperienced team as far as playoffs went," explained Andrew Ference, "and so, to kind of get in that mindset of what it takes to concentrate on a set number of games and in the series kind of fashion was beneficial. The fact that we knew the pressure games, knew the big games that it took to win ... we all learned very valuable things about the importance of big games."

 None bigger than tonight's, which would mean a championship.

 - - -


 * GAMES 55-61 (4-3-0)

 Vs. Atl -- 5-2 win

 At Vcr -- 3-2 win

 Vs. Ana -- 2-1 win

 At Minn -- 2-1 win

 At Mtl -- 4-1 loss

 At Ott -- 2-1 loss

 At NJ -- 3-1 loss

 * GAMES 62-68 (4-3-0)

 At Col -- 2-0 win

 Vs. Det -- 2-1 loss

 Vs. Phx -- 4-2 win

 At StL -- 4-2 win

 At Det -- 2-1 loss

 At Dal -- 5-1 loss

 At Col -- 7-1 win

 * GAMES 69-75 (4-1-2)

 Vs. Edm -- 1-1 tie

 Vs. Ott -- 4-2 win

 At Nash -- 4-4 tie

 At StL -- 3-0 win

 At Det -- 4-1 win

 Vs. Clb -- 2-0 win

 Vs. Nash -- 3-1 loss

 * GAMES 76-82 (4-3-0)

 Vs. Dal -- 4-0 loss

 At Phx -- 4-0 win

 At SJ -- 3-2 loss

 Vs. LA -- 3-2 OT win

 Vs. Phx -- 1-0 win

 At LA -- 3-2 win

 At Ana -- 2-1 loss


 Round 1 vs. Vcr: 4-3

 Round 2 vs. Det: 4-2

 Round 3 vs. SJ: 4-2

 Round 4 vs. TB: 3-2*

 * Game 6 tonight