CALGARY – Welcome to the defining moments of the Calgary Flames’ season.
With their remaining nine games of the regular season all against Northwest Division rivals, they face a huge swing in their fortunes. The division title and home-ice advantage in the playoffs is there for the taking, but so is finishing out of the post-season altogether.
Only seven points separated first-place Minnesota and last-place Edmonton prior to the Wild’s game against San Jose on Wednesday.
The three teams in the middle – Vancouver, Calgary and Colorado – were tied with 84 points.
Calgary hosts the Avalanche on Thursday and the Wild on Saturday. The Flames face those teams again after that, the Canucks twice and the Oilers three times before the season ends.
“These next nine games are not going to be out work or X’s and O’s,” Flames captain Jarome Iginla said Wednesday. “It’s going to be about passion and how bad we want it.
“This is the playoffs before the playoffs.”
The Flames lack any momentum following a 1-3 road trip during which they twice wasted leads heading into the third period. They were completely outworked by Columbus in a 3-0 loss Tuesday.
Calgary has been all over the map this season: a good October; a bad November; a better road record than last season, but a worse home record; a good power play on the road and one of the NHL’s worst at home.
They’ve been a team guilty of slow starts and when they got that sorted out, then they couldn’t hold leads.
The Flames are a veteran team, but injuries hadn’t been an issue until their recent road trip.
Alex Tanguay is day-to-day with a broken toe and defenceman Rhett Warrener was to see the Flames’ orthopedic surgeon Wednesday to determine the seriousness of his fractured left ankle.
Head coach Mike Keenan said earlier this month his team was a frustrating group to work with.
The players were still trying to put the finger on the cause of their inconsistency Wednesday and time was running out to find the answer.
“How can you one day feel one way about yourself and the next day not be nearly what you should be?” wondered winger Craig Conroy. “That’s the hardest part, which is for us to come and be consistent.
“We’ve got to have that killer instinct.”
Added defenceman Adrian Aucoin: “It’s just a matter of tweaking it and figuring it out. We’ve tried different things and we haven’t really found the secret recipe yet. The way we are right now, we’re only going to get better.”
The Flames still control their destiny as wins now both elevate their place in the standings while lowering their rivals’.
Finishing higher than the seventh or eighth playoff spot in the Western Conference could mean avoiding Detroit or San Jose in the first round. Calgary was eliminated by Detroit last year in a six-game series in the opening round.
“It should not be hard for guys to get motivated just looking at the standings,” forward Wayne Primeau said. “The main reason why we play this game is to make the playoffs and push for that ultimate goal, which is the Stanley Cup.
“It shouldn’t be hard to get ourselves prepared.”
While there wasn’t a sense of panic around the Flames’ dressing room Wednesday, the mood was sombre.
“With a veteran team, guys have been through a lot of this stuff before,” Aucoin said. “We all know it and it’s one of the good things that we know we have to correct it.”
Iginla is on pace for his best season since winning the NHL’s scoring trophy in 2002. He was five goals away from 50 and his 87 points ranked him third behind Washington’s Alex Ovechkin and Pittsburgh’s Evgeni Malkin on Wednesday.
Conroy noticed the Flames captain has been more vocal and holding more one-on-one discussions with his teammates lately.
“I’ve seen a change in Jarome over the last five days,” Conroy said. “He’s trying to right the ship too.”