Flames gear up for intense month of tough conference/divisional games

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The National Hockey League’s schedule-makers knew what they were planning when they sat down and mapped out the Calgary Flames schedule.

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With Western Conference opponents ahead for the last month of the season, including Thursday’s divisional clash against the Los Angeles Kings, it is going to make for an exciting stretch drive.

Each game means something; each game is a story within a story as it’ll all determine who will end up where — and who will play who in the post-season — when the 82-game campaign is over.

The fans know it.

The coaches know it.

The players know it.

And it all adds to the intensity of the Flames’ last 16 games of the season as the calendar flips from March to April.

“It always ramps up at the end of the year,” acknowledged Flames forward Trevor Lewis. “Teams are getting ready for playoffs and teams are trying to get in playoffs, with the seeding and trying to get home ice.

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“Everything has intensified and games mean that much more and everyone is getting ready to go for playoffs.”

They aren’t there yet, mind you. Flames head coach Darryl Sutter has made it clear, daily, reminding the media and, likely, his players that they still have work to do.

But it’s that time of the year and Lewis knows it.

The 35-year-old has 87 post-season games under his belt along with two Stanley Cup rings, both with his (and Sutter’s) former club, the LA Kings.

The Kings arrived in Calgary on Thursday with three games in hand on the Flames, six fewer points than them and a second in the Pacific Division. The Edmonton Oilers, meanwhile, were one point back from LA

Paying attention to the standings happens all year long, let’s be clear, but when the grass starts to turn green and the snow melts (theoretically) in Calgary, it matters that much more.

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So, knowing that the Kings were going to arrive at Scotiabank Saddledome with an air of desperation was surely going to add an extra level to the contest.

The Flames expected it — and are expecting that from opposing teams for the entire month.

“Definitely,” Lewis agreed. “Every game from now until playoffs are going to be (against) hungry teams and we’ve gotta be hungry too so we’ve gotta be ready to go. We’re trying to make sure our game is right for when playoffs come… they’re all playoff games now.

“We’ve just gotta make sure we’re ready.”

And perhaps that will be the difference this month for the Flames, especially compared to years in the past (we’re speaking about the 2018-19 edition of the team, specifically), where they limped into the post-season or fought and clawed their way in or were completely out of the post-season picture altogether.

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Where they are now in the standings and their opponents — all hailing from the Western Conference and Pacific Division — could add to the intensity of the month ahead.

Sutter pointed out early in the week that when he took over the group over a year ago, the Flames didn’t know how to be a playoff team, let alone to contend.

It started with a foundation.

And extended into their training and conditioning.

And went from there.

“That was the biggest thing I did probably when I came in here last year,” Sutter said. “It wouldn’t do any good — I could have coached for five months but they would have never got in a position where they could finish the race. So we had to work on that first. And then the next part is, depending on a coach, the personnel he has. He tries to set up a program or a system up that works for the type of team you have.”

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Then, according to Sutter, it moved into improving their home record and becoming a tougher opponent at Scotiabank Saddledome.

And thanks to the team’s COVID-19/Omicron outbreak in December — not the schedule-makers — it crammed a big chunk of their home games into February and March. They were able to build on it, to the tune of a 21-7-6 record ahead of Thursday’s game.

However, after Thursday’s clash against the Kings, six of their final 15 games are at home. The rest are on the road.

“This came from the players to me — this is last summer — was the players wanted to be a better home-in-Calgary team, Saddledome team,” Sutter said.

“They thought that there were some issues why they weren’t. So that was up to me to deal with those issues, and we did.

“So the reason we’re in a playoff spot, and I’ve said this lots, is our home record. Very simple.”

And they hope to build on it through the month of April… and beyond.

kanderson@postmedia.com
Twitter: @KDotAnderson

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