DENVER -- Despite the intense pressure of having to win on a nightly basis as the regular season winds down in the wild, wild Western Conference, coaches and players involved in the tightly-bunched playoff race insist they are enjoying the ride.
"It is fun," Calgary Flames left wing Alex Tanguay said this morning at the Pepsi Center, where his team will face the Colorado Avalanche tonight in a game with significant postseason implications. "As a player, as a competitor, you always want to play in games like this and in a fun atmosphere. That's going to be the case tonight."
The Flames are in 11th place with 81 points in 73 games, just two points behind the Avalanche, who sit in the eighth and final playoff position with 83 points in 74 games. Dallas, Phoenix, Los Angeles and San Jose are also in the mix for a playoff berth, all with 83 or 82 points, and they all play tonight.
"It sure makes for an interesting finish," Tanguay said. "It almost feels like, with the five or six teams battling, that we've already entered the playoffs, just three weeks early. It's certainly going to be fun, and hopefully we can get some big wins."
Everybody "is scoreboard watching on a nightly basis," he said.
That includes the coaches.
"It's a great time of year," Avalanche coach Joe Sacco said. "I tell the players, this is why you play. You play to be in situations like this. Right now we're in the playoff picture, but every day it changes. This is the biggest game to date, the last game was the biggest game and the one after this one will be the biggest game."
The Flames have beaten the Avalanche nine consecutive times, four times this season with one more meeting in Calgary on March 30 after tonight. The clubs haven't met since a 3-2 Flames win in Calgary on Dec. 8 when both were hovering around .500.
"I'm not even worrying about what's transpired in the past against them," Sacco said. "I feel we're a different team right now. We're certainly playing a lot better."
The Avalanche are coming off a three-game swing through the East in which they posted a 2-0-1 record. Colorado has gone 4-0-1 in the past five games and 10-3-1 since Feb. 22. Goalie Semyon Varlamov has won four in a row, six of seven and gone 9-2 in his past 11 starts while registering a 1.53 goals-against average with two shutouts and a .949 save percentage.
"It's not like we beat them nine times in a row back-to-back-to-back-to-back," Tanguay said. "Every game is different. I don't think it will make any difference in the outcomes of the last two games of our series."
Avalanche forward Peter Mueller was recovering from post-concussion symptoms and didn't play in the previous four games against Calgary, but he knows all about the nine-game streak.
"They've had our number," he said. "Hopefully it doesn't repeat. We're concentrating on this game and we're not looking to the past. We're just trying to figure out what can be successful against this team, and hopefully we'll find it tonight."
The Flames have gone 10-4-7 since Feb. 3 and won five games in a row before stubbing their toes in the past two games, losing 3-1 in Edmonton and dropping a 2-1 shootout decision to Columbus. Goalie Miikka Kiprusoff has gone 6-1-3 in his past 10 starts, is tied for third in the NHL with 33 wins, and he owns a 26-14-5 career record against the Avalanche with a 2.50 GAA and four shutouts.
"We've been in playoff mode for a long time," Tanguay said. "We kind of shot ourselves in the foot the last two games. Edmonton and Columbus are at the bottom of the pack, and we came out of those two games with one point. But there's so much parity. We just played those two teams and we didn't play our best game and we didn't win. That's the way it should be."
The Avalanche have played one more game than the Flames, but would move four points ahead of them with a regulation win if they can find a way to solve Kiprusoff and put an end to that nine-game drought.
"We have to do what we've been doing for the past couple of weeks," Mueller said. "It's going to be a dogfight tonight. We've been in playoff mode for the last two months. We're happy coming to the rink and it's an exciting time of the year. It's going to be exciting coming down to the wire."