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Coach Ward has high praise for Matthew Tkachuk as the Flames open a season-long, five-game road trip

by RYAN DITTRICK @ryandittrick /

DETROIT - Over the course of an 82-game season, there are going to be those nights.

The kind when you're not 'feeling it,' are bogged down by the opponent, or a combination of the two.

But good players find a way.

They find a way contribute, make an impact in whatever way possible, and show the 19 others on the bench you're willing to do anything for two points.

Matthew Tkachuk is that guy for the Flames.

"You talk about leadership," interim head coach Geoff Ward began, pointing to No. 19's fight with Bruins defenceman Jeremy Lauzon the other night. "He brings leadership into our room as part of our leadership group, but he also brings emotional leadership. You need guys on your team like that.

"When he's prepared to go to war for his team, it says something - and it pulls everybody into the hockey game. He's making a statement about how much he cares, and how much he cares for his teammates. Often times when he does those things, it's a momentum-changer for us.

"It's a positive thing."

Of course, the energy shifts don't always come in the form of fisticuffs. However, the opportunity has presented itself several times over the past month, and a result, Tkachuk has had four bouts dating back to Jan. 29.

In the case of his tilt the other night, Tkachuk felt his team needed a spark, trailing by one with 9:45 to play in the second period.

That linemate Andrew Mangiapane got into it with the B's D man moments earlier only fuelled his intentions.

"I don't like the parts in the games where they have all the momentum and they have all the energy," he said. "If it's at home and they're taking it to us and our building is dead, I'm just trying to trying to find a way to get it back - get back life back in the building. If we're on the road, try to weather the storm a bit."

Surely, the Flames will need that kind of presence - and "emotional leadership" - tonight when they square off with the struggling Detroit Red Wings.

Tkachuk, in particular, was all business when he met with the media following the team's a.m. skate at Little Caesars Arena, with the stress of the playoff race weighing heavily on his mind.

The Flames woke up in an unfamiliar spot, on the outside of the Western Conference playoff picture, thanks to the out-of-town results on Saturday.  

The Flames are currently fourth in the wild-card standings, one point back of the Winnipeg Jets with one game in hand.

Between them stand the Nashville Predators, who picked up a shootout win over the Columbus Blue Jackets and now are now tied with the Flames, with one game in hand.

So, as the Flames open a season-long, five-game road trip tonight against the Red Wings, they need to get off on the right foot.

"This is the biggest one," Tkachuk said. "This is the one that can set up the road trip positively or negatively. So, we're putting a lot of emphasis on tonight's game and are hoping to come out with a good start.

"You try to have the same mindset," he added of being in 'chase mode' in the ever-tightening playoff race. "You're not as happy; you're not as satisfied. We knew it was going to happen, since other teams had games in hand.

"We've got to start taking care of business now.

"This is a team that can beat you if you're not ready, so we have to be ready."

Over the next eight nights, the Flames will play the Red Wings, Bruins (again), Predators, Lightning and Panthers.

A tall task, indeed.

But if they're going to get themselves back in the playoff picture, the road is a good place to be.

The Flames are 13-4-1 in their last 18 tilts away from the friendly confines, and have the second-most points in the Western Conference - fourth overall - since Nov. 23.

"I think we play a simple game on the road," Ward said. "I think we utilize our depth on the road a lot. I think we've been a disciplined team on the road. I think there are a lot of things. Our goaltending's been good...

"We've played well on the road because we've gotten to our game and played our game."

A simple and direct approach there by the bench boss.

Just like the team's road game.

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