Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Early Spring in Calgary: Playoff Hockey Has Already Arrived for the Flames

While fans debate whether or not Calgary will make the NHL post-season, Joe Colborne says for the Flames, the playoffs have essentially already begun.

"That game with the Kings on Monday night was a building block. Facing a team that you went and played just a few nights before -- just like in the playoffs, and we got a big win and now they want revenge and they come into our building and we stepped up to the plate," Colborne said after practice on Tuesday. "L.A. is a measuring stick for us and it was big for our confidence to be able to take two games from them."

While they may not have deserved to win both games -- one took a furious late third period comeback including two goals with the goalie pulled, the other they were outshot 27-15, yet they managed to get the job done and when you're playing in the real Stanley Cup playoffs in the spring, that's the only measurement that counts.

"You're not always going to have a great game but you have to find a way to win and I thought we did that (on Monday)," said David Jones. "It wasn't our best effort but we were skating pretty well and we held them to just the one goal, which is pretty good against that kind of team."

Lately, the Flames have been doing what it takes to be successful.

"It's the little things -- turnovers and blocking shots, paying the price and that kind of stuff.  Right now, we've been pretty good, especially in the last couple games," Curtis Glencross said. "We haven't turned the puck over a lot. A team like L.A., they strive off turnovers and odd-man rushes and we did a good job of not making too many turnovers. We played a pretty good game. Plus, when you get goaltending like we have with the way Hills has been playing for us lately, that's been great too."


Standings are Tightening Up

Calgary is currently sitting just outside the top eight in the Western Conference. Yet, they're just two points behind Vancouver for second spot in the Pacific Division.

"Lose a game and you could be ninth and on the outside. Win a game and you could be up to sixth. It's so tight right now," said Glencross, who has appeared in only six playoff games in eight NHL seasons. "The West always seems to be like that. It's always a grind. We were talking last night that as long as we keep doing what we're doing right now, the last couple games could be big, determining games for us."

Playing in meaningful games right now makes a huge difference says Jones.

"We have a long way to go but it's certainly nice to be real close," said Jones, whose only pro playoff experience came as a rookie with the Colorado Avalanche in 2007-08. "When you're out of it and you're playing for nothing, it's obviously tough, but we're right in the chase right now and it's a lot of fun."

As the Flames continue to pursue teams in front of them like San Jose, Los Angeles, Vancouver and Winnipeg, while also fending off Dallas, Minnesota and Colorado, who are nipping at their heels, they'll need to continue to be at their best each time the puck drops.

"Every game from now on is going to be more and more intense and more and more playoff-like," said Lance Bouma whose last playoff appearance came five years ago when he appeared in both the WHL playoffs and AHL playoffs. "These are fun games to play in and these are the games you want to play in as a player."


Difference a Year Makes

Going into the New Year's Eve game a year ago, the Flames 14-19-6 record had them 13 points out of the second wild card spot. They had no realistic chance of making the post-season. This year at 20-15-3, things are different. Calgary is legitimately in the playoff hunt and coach Bob Hartley says the atmosphere around the club reflects that.

"The fun of this game is to win. You don't win, it's quiet on the bus, it's quiet in the locker room, the next day at practice, the guys are forcing smiles. That's not what you play for," Hartley said.

"I'm sure after Monday's game, everyone left this building with big smiles. Even the cold weather wasn't that bad after that game," said Hartley with a chuckle. "Everyone from Harvey (the Hound) to the Zamboni driver to everyone -- even yourself, it's probably much more fun to write stories when things are going well and you don't have to rip into people and stuff like this."

Glencross admits the team got in a wee bit of a funk during its seven-game losing streak but that's in the past now.

"Right now, we're rolling again, we've won three in a row -- two at home, and we've got to keep it rolling like this," said Glencross. "When you're winning, it's always more fun coming to the rink."

Colborne says the team's success this year has been fueled by a change in mindset from a year ago.

"Last year was about beginning something, creating an identity. We tried to create an identity that teams don't want to play against us," said Colborne. "We came in this year and a lot of people outside of our team didn't really believe in us. They picked us to finish around the same spot.

"But the way we were playing at the end of last year gave us so much confidence and we believed we could hang with a lot of the top teams so we came in pretty confident and with a different mindset from last year that we're not going to accept what we did last year as being okay."


Focus is on Winning Hockey Games

It's with making the playoffs as the goal, that Hartley says will drive personnel decisions as the season continues. This will include what to do when the team eventually gets Mikael Backlund back and needs to create a roster spot for him.

"We're aiming at the playoffs and we're going to keep that mindset until the end so if you want to play, you have to contribute. You have to make sure you bring something. Whether you play 20 minutes or eight or nine minutes, it doesn't matter. Everyone has a role. Everyone has an importance and it's important that we keep everyone accountable."

More than anything, Hartley says it's the team's depth that has made the difference between this year and last.

"It's the progression of the players that we've been working with for the past few seasons," Hartley said. "We've added size, we've added speed, we've added grit. We have two goalies capable of winning us some hockey games so we're just growing as an organization."

And if they can keep winning -- looking to make it four wins in a row tonight against Edmonton, they'll keep enjoying the journey.

"It doesn't matter if you're scoring 100 goals, if you're losing every game, you're miserable," Colborne says. "We have a real tight-knit group in here. We don't have too many cliques. It's just a big group where everyone gets along and it's a fun atmosphere to be in."

Just imagine how fun that atmosphere will be around the entire city when the Flames finally do make that long-awaited return to the real Stanley Cup playoffs.


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