Last 'W' helps Flames' playoff psyche

STEVE MACFARLANE

, Last Updated: 8:49 AM ET

Just how important winning their last game of the regular-season was comes down to the mental side of the sport.

Upbeat isn't a word you could use to describe the Calgary Flames' locker-room for much of the last month. Hopeful, maybe. Not quite self-assured as it was at the all-star break.

Beating the Edmonton Oilers 4-1 in the finale went a long way in creating a more confident mood heading into the playoffs.

Admittedly, there have been some dark times as the Northwest Division slipped out of their control, and then their luck ran out on the injury front.

"This has been absolutely crazy," winger Eric Nystrom said Saturday in the minutes following a game meaningless in the standings but critical psychologically.

"Sleepless nights. You think it'd be easy just to go play a game for a living, but there are nights you just lay there and think about little plays -- things that are so insignificant."

Nystrom says the best players are able to forget quickly.

"That's the mentality you have to have," he said.

"It's definitely tough when things aren't going your way, but we're professional athletes. We're putting on a show on a big stage and you have to be mentally tough.

"That's what it all comes down to. You have to persevere."

Perseverance is sticking to a course of action, a belief, a purpose, regardless of the obstacles in your way.

For a squad looking for no less than a crack at the Stanley Cup, there have been many. Often over the last six weeks, the biggest was their own play.

They won six of 15 games in March, and went 3-3 in April.

Embarrassed 5-1 by the Oilers at Rexall Place Friday night, the Flames might have hit their low point.

Edmonton's playoff hopes had already come to a halt, and the Flames had a shot at the division title. Even Craig Conroy showed his frazzled nerves with frustration-laden post-game comments rarely heard from one of the team's more positive people.

Before the next night's rematch, some of the players talked about their difficult times and how they could move past them.

"A few of us were talking and we said, 'Two months from now when we're carrying the Stanley Cup, you'll look back on that and say, remember that? Remember that when we were all upset because we lost a couple games?' " said Michael Cammalleri, who scored twice and assisted on Conroy's goal Saturday.

"There's no other way to look at it except here's our end goal, here's what we're capable of, we're going to give it all we've got.

"We're not going to allow negativity, or what's happened before that we can't control seep into our team"

Negativity was all around them, from fan reaction to media reports and the seemingly endless parade to the trainer's room.

"It hasn't been easy," said Cammalleri, whose Flames took yesterday off and will get back to work today to prepare for a first-round playoff matchup against the Chicago Blackhawks.

"(The win) helps a lot to for us to prepare in a positive manner the next four or five days. Heads will be held a little higher. Guys will be coming in here snapping the puck around with a little more confidence."

Resorting to the influence of a sports psychologist is a tactic some NHL teams have taken over the years when the mental grind gets especially taxing.

Comic relief from Andre Roy and the positive leadership of Jarome Iginla and Conroy are some of the methods Flames players promote.

"Jarome's probably the most positive guy you've ever seen in your life," Nystrom said. "He's a guy who kind of vibrates throughout the team -- his positivity.

"Obviously, there's times when negativity is going to come in. The coaching staff's not going to be too happy with you sometimes. Especially if you're not playing well.

"We're professional athletes, we don't need specialists coming in to tell us how to be mentally prepared for a game," Nystrom said. "But there's some games, you wonder."

STEVE.MACFARLANE@SUNMEDIA.CA


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