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HIT PARADE

Game 1 was a physical affair and playoff veteran James Neal said it's only going to ramp up from here

by RYAN DITTRICK @ryandittrick / CalgaryFlames.com

Take it from someone who's been there.

"The nastiness," declares James Neal, "is going to ramp up. Big time.

"And fast."

The switch from regular season to playoff hockey saw an abrupt rise in temperature for Thursday's victorious Game 1, but the entertaining, all-out malice, Neal avows, will quickly rise from a gentle simmer to a violent, full-blown boil in no time.

Neal - having now played in a team-leading 101 of these passionate, post-season affairs - knows better than to expect otherwise.

And that's just the way he likes it.

"Everyone's fighting for the same thing, and we all want it bad," he said. "Everyone wants to win a Stanley Cup and every second you're on the ice, you're aware that you have a chance to do that. That's the game within the game in the playoffs. As you see us go along here, it'll get nastier and nastier and I think we're well-equipped to handle it.

"That's just what's on the line. The price you have to pay. The emotion that builds up when you see the same team, over and over.

"It bubbles to the surface pretty quick."

 

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On paper, the Flames and Avalanche have little history to fall back on.

But the playoffs are a different animal and setting a tone - while impossible to quantify - can make for a lasting impact in a seven-game series.

Take Thursday for example. A punishing battle with no free ice, heavy hits and all kinds of extracurriculars after the whistles, with sticks, gloves and even helmets littering the canvas after another in a long time of fiery jaw sessions.

What the Flames did especially well, though, was managing that emotion properly. There was no running around, and no one getting caught out of position, leading to a scoring chance the other way, which often rears itself when the physical game becomes a talking point.

The locals need to have a similar mindset in that regard again tonight.

"Don't go out of your way to make a hit and don't get caught," preaches head coach Bill Peters. "When you're done with the body contact, make sure you're still in a good position to continue to play. That's the biggest thing. Don't go looking for a big hit that's not there.

"If it is, take advantage of it."

 

 

All told, the Flames out-hit the Avalanche 36-33 in Game 1, with Garnet Hathaway (7), Sam Bennett (4), Matthew Tkachuk (4), and Neal (3) leading the charge.  

Contrast that to the Flames' final regular-season tilt when the Flames and Edmonton Oilers combined for about a third of the 69 combined impacts on Thursday.

It's the time of year, after all, when ice bags and off days mean more to a player's toolkit than almost anything else, equipment or otherwise.

"Even Johnny was dishing 'em out, throwing his weight around," Neal laughed. "He took a pretty good jolt in the first period and was a little (ticked) off when he got to the bench.

"I love it. That's playoff hockey, man. Emotions run hot and everyone steps it up.

"If that doesn't get you into the game - with the crowd going nuts like that - nothing will.

"I know our bench was pretty fired up with every hit."

The stakes are just that high.

And now, as the Flames look to hold serve and grab a commanding, 2-0 series lead tonight at the Scotiabank Saddledome, they expect their opponents to be significantly better than they were in Game 1.

Making those little details - the "game within the game" - all the more vital.

"We've got home ice for a reason and we want to protect that," Neal said. "We've got to be physical on everyone. Just wear 'em down. It's a long series, a long grind to get to where we want to be. You have to approach every series like it's going to go seven games, and prepare as best you can for the physical toll it's going to take.

"And for us, we want to make it tough on them.

"Every single shift."

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