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GRADE-A CHALLENGE

Flames trying to make sure plan comes together down the stretch

by GEORGE JOHNSON @GeorgejohnsonCH / CalgaryFlames.com

When trying to combat a night-to-night helping of 'A' Games, you're gonna need to be an A-Team.

So who among the Calgary Flames takes on the George Peppard role?

Or, more interestingly, who gets the earring, "I Pity The Fool" scowl, Mohawk haircut, gigantic guns and morphs into Mr. T?

"Every game,'' reiterates goaltender Brian Elliott, "is going to be tight going forward. I know you hear that all the time, so often it sounds cliché.

"That doesn't make it any the less true.

"You're getting everybody's 'A' Game now.

"That's what makes this time of year so special, and also so hard.

"Everybody's kinda settled into their roles, where they fit on different teams, the style they have to be play as a group to be successful.

"It's a logjam and everyone's trying to find their way out."

As they departed Thursday morning, the Flames clung to the second and final wild-card spot by a slender two points over St. Louis and Vancouver, three ahead of Dallas.

Putting the into clearer perspective, though, the chasing Blues and Canucks each own three games in hand, the Stars two. 

Making any margin for error on Calgary's part non-existent, any perception of wiggle room pure folly.

No more mulligans. It's strictly meticulously scored stroke play from here on in.

The deflation of that recent, unsettling four-game plunge now behind them, buoyed by consecutive victories over in-form teams Ottawa and Minnesota, the Flames embark on a mini-tour of the Metropolitan Division, moving from the Garden State of New Jersey to the blinding neon lights of New York for a Manhattan matinee and on to the steel tough of Pittsburgh.

"They're three good teams,'' said Elliott. "But we know we're a good team, too. New York and Pittsburgh, yeah, everybody understands how strong they are. But don't underestimate New Jersey. They came in here and beat us the other night and I think they probably have the same amount of, or close to as many points as we do right now."

 

While both the Rangers and Devils haven't been particularly proficient on home ice, the Penguins are a jaw-dropping/table-topping 21-3-2 for 44 points at - wait for it - PPG Paints Arena.

Each of the upcoming opponents presents differing challenges. The Devils, tied for last in an ultra-competitive division, represent a potential banana-peel game. The balanced Broadway Blueshirts score by committee, boasting half-a dozen players within three points of the team scoring lead of 38. The Penguins, of course, of course, have the luxury of tossing Sidney Crosby (first in NHL goals, second in points) and/or Evgeni Malkin (tied for third in points) over the boards for in excess of 25 minutes each per evening.

The axiom in heavyweight title bouts, as old as cauliflower ears, is that fights are won or lost between Rounds 10 and 15.
Well, with Game 53 looming, the echoes of the bell for Round 10 are already ringing in the ears of the Flames.
"Exactly,'' says hard-rock defenceman Deryk Engelland. "Those three teams, they're fighting for positioning, too. Every team has something to play for at this time of the year.

"So we need to come out hungry."

Topping Calgary coach Glen Gulutzan's wish list is more resilency, more stick-to-itiveness.

Because there's an excellent chance that at some juncture over the course of this trip, his Flames will find themselves playing catch-up.

"We've never had trouble playing with the lead,'' he reminded all following the esteem-boosting 5-1 takedown of the surging Minnesota Wild on Wednesday. "We've had trouble when we get down and, to me, that's something we have to make a conscious effort on, mentally and physically.

"What we have to get used to is playing without the lead because we're not always going to score the first one.
"Yeah, it's nice to have and we talk about it all the time, but good teams, whether they're up one or down one, play the same way.

"Playing without the lead is something we've got to make sure we make strides in.

"It's that belief in our game plan, playing that full 60 minutes, that we have to keep buying into. That's what the guys did (against the Wild)."

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