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Sunday, February 08, 2015

So Close They Can Taste It: Flames Vets Thirsty for a Return to the Playoffs

Eighteen lousy, stinkin' days.

Over the past three seasons prior to this one -- so 2011-12 through 2013-14, that's how many days total the Calgary Flames found themselves in a playoff spot. Eighteen measly days.

Even worse, 14 of those days came right at the start of last year, long before legitimate water cooler playoff talk had begun. Calgary started out 3-0-2 and were in a playoff spot for two weeks before falling out for good on October 18.

But this year has been a completely different situation.

In a season that's 123 days old, Sunday was the 86th day the Flames woke up in a playoff spot. That's 70 percent of the season spent in the top eight in the Western Conference.

"It's fun, man, it's totally a different atmosphere," says Flames captain Mark Giordano on Sunday morning after a rare practice at Max Bell Arena. "There's obviously more pressure and intensity coming to games but it's a fun atmosphere being in it, knowing how much is at stake."

After Sunday's games, Calgary sits in the second wild card spot in the West, five points up on Minnesota, Los Angeles and Dallas. The Wild hold two games in while the Kings have one.

The Flames are actually closer to the teams above them in the Pacific than the pack in pursuit. It the battle for second and third in the division, Calgary is even in points with Vancouver -- who has two games in hand, and are two points back of San Jose, who are currently second. The Flames can catch the Sharks with a win in San Jose on Monday night.


Staying Loose is the Key

Giordano likes the way the team has handled being in a spot that has not been a familiar one in recent years.

"Our group, for the most part, has done a great job of having fun with it and not allowing for it to be debilitating or a pressure situation where we don't play our game," Giordano says.

Days Spent in a Playoff Spot:

2009-10 - 134
2010-11 - 43
2011-12 - 4
2012-13 - 0
2013-14 - 14
2014-15 - 86 (and counting)


The guy with the most experience of being in this type of situation -- being the hunted rather than doing the hunting -- is coach Bob Hartley, who during his years in Colorado guided his club to the playoffs four times, winning a total of 10 playoff series including the Stanley Cup in 2001.

"It's not a pressure situation, it's fun," says Hartley. "We should dream every summer to be in this position. Looking at the Western Conference right now, you win a game, you go up to fifth spot, you lose a game, you drop back four or five spots. I think it's great for hockey and it's a great learning situation for our guys."

Giordano says the key in the next few weeks is not just staying in a playoff spot but trying to build up a cushion.

"You have to pile up the points and make that gap as big as possible," says Giordano. "In years past, it's tough in the last 10-15 games for there to be a lot of movement because of the three-point games."


Being Chased, Not Doing the Chasing

What's different for the Flames this season compared to the previous four is they haven't spent most of the season on the outside looking in, now they're on the inside trying to stay in.

"We're in that spot right now where teams are chasing us and we have to keep the pedal down because if you have have some bad games you're right back out of it," says left winger Curtis Glencross, who will return to the line-up on Monday after missing six games with a lower body injury. "For the next 30 games, almost every game is going to be a four-point game for us because if you lose one night, the other teams are winning."

Avoiding any long losing streaks is going to be paramount to the Flames being able to hang on and return to the post-season for the first time in six years.

"In these last 30 games, if you start getting into planning the parade after every win and being in the dumps after every loss, you're going to have a tough time," says Giordano, who was playing for Moscow in the KHL the last time the Flames qualified for the post-season.

Hartley says the key is the whole team needs to adopt a goaltender's mentality.

"Look at our schedule in March, it's almost every second day. If you sit on a loss, it's going to affect the next game," says Hartley. "We're in a situation where it's almost like a goalie mindset. The one that just went by you, forget about it because you know that there's another one coming."


History Lesson

The last time the Flames spent the season in a similar position to this year -- the team being chased, was in 2009-10.

Calgary got off to a hot start that season with four straight victories. They kept it going from there and remained in the top eight in the West right into January when the wheels started to wobble.

On the heels of a five-game winning streak that improved their record to 25-12-5, things deteriorated quickly in the form of a nine-game winless skid (0-6-3) lasting from January 6-28.

After 112 consecutive days in a playoff spot, the Flames finally fell out on January 22. For the rest of the season, they hung around the cut line spending some days in and some days out.

On the morning of January 31 with them just barely in the top eight, the Flames made a blockbuster trade with Toronto that involved Dion Phaneuf as the principle player going to the Maple Leafs and Matt Stajan among the players coming to Calgary.

"It was a different dynamic that year, we were a veteran team with a lot of older guys," says Stajan. "But it is similar in that you have to scratch and claw for every point and that year, we just let it slip away pretty quickly."

If you consider Nashville, St Louis, Chicago and Anaheim as playoff locks, that leaves eight teams chasing four spots in the West. With just nine points separating those teams, Giordano says a lengthy losing streak like what happened in 2009-10 would be be a fatal blow.

"That year, we had a big losing streak and any team in the league right now, with 30 games left, you can't afford to have something like that happen. You have to rebound quick from losses and hopefully tomorrow night, we get a win and stop it at one," says Giordano.


Playoffs Long Overdue

Between Glencross, Giordano and Stajan, three of the club's veteran leaders, they have just 13 NHL playoff games between them -- Glencross having played the most thanks to his six games in 2008-09.

"You play all year to play in the playoffs. It's disappointing when you don't make the playoffs," says Glencross. "I always hate going home when the regular season is over and watching the teams that are playing in the playoffs and thinking what could have been. Now's our chance to get to the playoffs and hopefully have a lot of years in a row here where we can keep this going."

Stajan shares that same eagerness and it's no surprise considering his three playoff games came in his rookie season 11 years ago,

"Obviously, the young guys have done a great job and this is all new to them but for the older guys, we're hungry too, we want to get to the playoffs. It's not fun being out of the playoffs every year," says Stajan. "It's been too long here and we're going after it."

Stajan adds that the winning feeling from the season's first 52 games have further stoked the fire.

"When you're successful like we have been this year, you have a taste of what that feels like and you want to keep that knowing that it's only going to get better if you can take that next step and that's get into the playoffs," says Stajan.


Dads Trip on Tap

Coming off a humbling 4-0 loss to the powerhouse Pittsburgh Penguins on Friday, Giordano is hoping the presence of most of the player's Dads on this California road trip -- an annual event much-anticipated by both young and old -- will provide a little extra incentive for the club to get back into the win column.

"Obviously two huge games for us. We'll use any motivation we can," says Giordano. "Hopefully having the fathers there makes guys excited and maybe puts a little bit more pep in our step but not nervous. Hopefully it's a good thing, a positive thing."

Stajan says the key is just to enjoy it.

"It has been a lot of fun this year. When you're winning and your team is doing well, that's what generates that fun. For everyone, it just makees the rink a fun place to come to," says Stajan. "You get a taste of being in a winning atmosphere, it's contagious and you want more of it. That's what we're feeling here and we want to keep this fun going. That only comes with hard work and winning games and that's the focus."

After all, it's only by getting into the post-season that you can get that coveted shot at the ultimate prize.

"We all play the game to win and we all want to win that cup eventually. Right now, it's sweet to be in the spot we're in," says Glencross.

Thirty more playoff-like games to go. It makes you wonder if the team will even recognize the difference should they qualify to keep on playing once the regular season ends.


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