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Flames will have their hands full during road swing, battling to keep their perch atop the Pacific Division

by GEORGE JOHNSON @GJohnsonFlames /

This odyssey isn't quite as epic as, say, Homer's.

Still, four cities over nine days, opening on the Canadian west coast, in Vancouver, and serpentining all the way east in the U.S., to Tampa Bay, Miami, Pittsburgh, and back represents a bit of a hike at 4,170 kilometres.

Even via charter aircraft.

"We have a good break of days to get to the east coast,"noted skipper Mark Giordano. "I'm sure it'll be nice and warm in Florida, so the body will feel good.

"And with our trade and the hotels we stay in, honestly, it's top notch. We're pretty spoiled.

"We get (to Tampa) on the Sunday and don't play until Tuesday. So to get those days are huge.

"Staying hydrated, nutrition, sleep … all those things come into play."

The sting of Thursday's 5-2 loss to the visiting San Jose Sharks having been put in broad-picture perspective, the Flames prepared for the short flight to Van.

Things, they're aware, are beginning to tighten atop the Western Conference standings, three teams currently within three points of their front-running total of 73.

Given the desperation (Canucks), elite status (Lighting), star players (Crosby, Malkin) and unpredictability (Panthers) of the four opponents on this junket, it shapes up as something of a nearing-the-stretch-run litmus test.

Holding their ground or hopefully generating a smidgeon more separation is the goal.

"Starting in Van, it's really important to get off to a good start," said Giordano. "They're gonna be hungry for the points. Obviously they're fighting for that (wild card) spot. We've got to match their intensity but get to our game, skating, playing quick.

"I thought when we started playing fast (Thursday) night that's when we sorta took over and started generating some chances."

The loss to San Jose proved particularly frustrating given the number of quality opportunities.

"It was tough," sighed Giordano, of only his team's fifth home-ice disappointment this campaign. "When you're down two. Lindy hit the post with 14 minutes left to put us right back in it. Even if pucks didn't go in I thought we generated a lot.

"We felt we still had a chance, right to the end. 

"When we're at our best we pack it in tight and generate a lot of offence from our own zone. Our forwards are so good at reading the play and getting their D stretched out that if we do the right things defensively, we can generate a lot."

Video: "You can't start changing what we're doing."

Much was made post-tilt Thursday of the early exit of goaltender David Rittich - a revelation so far this season - lasting as he did a shade over 10 minutes in surrendering two oddball goals on half a dozen San Jose shots.

"Ritter and I had a great talk today," said head coach Bill Peters, post-practice. "Tomas is coming back. His brother loves Harvey the Hound, right?

"So that'll be awesome. (Rittich) get his family back here at some point. We had a good chat. It was awesome. Just about family.

"We never even got to talk about hockey. We ran out of time. Had to skate at noon.

"Everything's fine. More than fine."

Video: "I just want to be better next time."

Goaltending coach/mentor Jordan Sigalet isn't biting his nails down to the cuticles over a single Rittich misstep, either.

"He's only gone through it once before this year, in Columbus," reasoned Sigalet. "So it is a bit of a learning experience. But 32 games and two pulled? I told him last night: 'You're human. Tomorrow's a new day. You bounce back.'

"Everyone has tough games, tough stretches. Look around the league. (John) Gibson's been pulled three times in his last four.

"These things aren't easy to go though but they do make you stronger mentally. That isn't just a cliché. We've talked about puck play all year. And (the second goal) was a puck-play mistake. But it's a play where he has to come out of his net, he doesn't choose to. (Brent) Burns has a breakaway. Ritter got a lot of wood on it but Burns, a big guy, did a good job stepping in front of it.

"A bad moment but he's going to have those occasionally during his career. Every goalie does. 

"Just a bump in the road."

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