MONTREAL – It would be natural for the Calgary Flames to see Monday night's visit to the Montreal Canadiens as another step in what is a long climb up a mountain toward a playoff spot in the Western Conference.
But in fact, the Flames approach this Heritage Classic preview with an eye toward clinching yet another series in what has already been a long playoff run.
Having dug themselves a 14-18-3 hole back on Dec. 21, coach Brent Sutter proposed to his players that they look at the remaining 47 games as a sequence of three-game series.
Since changing that mindset, the Flames swept their first series, lost their next one in three games after winning the first game, and won their third series because they claimed four out of six points even though that included two overtime losses.
Now, the Flames arrive in Montreal with a 1-0 lead in their latest mini-series after a 2-1 shootout win in Toronto on Saturday, looking to close it out against the Canadiens.
"If we get two out of three from when we started, I think it will get us to 95 points, and that will give us a great shot at the playoffs and to be playing good going in," team captain Jarome Iginla said after Monday's morning skate. "We know that's playing some really good hockey and that's a lot of work ahead of us, but we've just been focusing in on that. When one (game) hasn't gone our way, we just focus on the next one."
The Flames enter this game seven points out of a playoff spot, but also needing to leapfrog five other teams to get there.
"If you look at it yeah, there's a lot of teams," Iginla admitted. "But if we take care of ours, we can climb."
That's why Sutter doesn't particularly want to hear the word "playoffs" mentioned around his team, because of just how daunting that project seems right now.
"We only think about tonight's game," he said. "Tonight is the second game of our segment."
Sutter feels it has had a good effect on his players, who have improved their attention to detail and their work ethic since beginning this extended playoff run, posting a 6-2-2 mark over the last 10 games.
"It simplifies things," Sutter said. "As a player you can focus in on short-term goals and not worry about things that will happen six, seven or eight games down the road. Let's play every series like it's a best of three and take it from there. I think as a team we seem to handle that better."
The Flames could still be without defenseman Robyn Regehr, who has missed the past two games with a lower-body injury. He was skating Monday morning alongside Jay Bouwmeester, but Sutter said he will be a game-time decision.
The Canadiens will have some game-time decisions of their own, as both defenseman James Wisniewski and left win Benoit Pouliot were sent home from Monday's skate with an illness.
The goaltending matchup will have Miikka Kiprusoff facing Canadiens backup Alex Auld, who will make his first start of the season on home ice. Interestingly, the Flames are the only team in the NHL that Canadiens No. 1 goalie Carey Price has never faced in his career, though it would be hard to imagine he won't get his chance Feb. 20 at McMahon Stadium in the Heritage Classic.