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HIT THE GROUND RUNNING

Flames look to start final sprint to the finish line with win over visiting Blues tonight

by RYAN DITTRICK @ryandittrick / calgaryflames.com

The chatter, the chirps, the bets and the barbs are usually heard at full volume. 

Not Monday. 

It was all business ahead of tonight's tilt with the visiting St. Louis Blues.

The vacations are over, the batteries are re-charged, and the focus with which the Flames practiced with was rightly telling of how massively important this upcoming week is. 

"We're ready to play," said interim head coach Geoff Ward. "It's the best time of year.

"These last 30 or so games, and the playoffs, are the best time of the year. This is why we play the game. ... For us, we're in a playoff spot right now and we're looking forward to it."

The Flames returned from the bye week, followed by the NHL All-Star Weekend, in a four-way tie for second place in the Pacific with 57 points.

Officially, they sit third, thanks to a greater number of games played (50, to Edmonton's 49), and they would currently lose the tie-breaker (number of regulation wins) to any of the Oilers, Vegas Golden Knights and Arizona Coyotes, with only 17, 60-minute 
triumphs. 

But none of that matters now. 

Now, it's a sprint.

"We know right now there are no easy games," Ward said. "We know we're in a race.

"Those two things are true and they force us to be at our best. We understand now that we can't go on a long losing streak. We have to strive to prepare to be at our best and play our best hockey every night. It's going to force us to focus on the details, it's going to force us to focus on our preparation, and it's going to pay off for us down the road. So, if we can do the work that we need to do to be a playoff team, we're going to be better for it going into the playoffs."

Those that are battle-hardened usually do have a leg-up come playoff time. And, in fact, Ward has talked all year about the importance of "peaking" at the right time and 
playing your best at the most critical point in the season. 

A five-game fizzle in last year's opening round was a lesson for this group, and they intend to make amends. 

But they also respect the gauntlet that lies ahead. 

It begins with one of their most difficult matchups to date. 

Leading scorer David Perron and the Blues top the charts with 68 points in the Central, and are showing no signs of a Stanley-induced hangover, here, at the unofficial turn of the campaign. At 30-11-8, they're six points clear of the Colorado Avalanche for Best in the West, and have an 11-point gap between them and the final playoff spot, with 33 dates left.

While the hockey world's attention has already shifted to upcoming home-and-home set with the Oilers, to look past a team of the Blues' calibre isn't an option.

"The guys know how big the games are," Ward said. "We've talked about it before - you see teams get better at this time of year. Teams that traditionally know how to win have gone through that learning curve, so they raise their level. Good players raise their level at this time of year. When you come together as a team, you have to understand what is going to be offered to you on a nightly basis and guys have to be prepared for that. Guys need to make each other accountable; guys need to talk about how important everybody's role is, and guys really need to dig in."

"It's about getting the two points as opposed to maybe getting individual points, and it's about paying attention to details.

Certainly, the idea of banking a few points before Wednesday's nationally-televised Battle of Alberta slugfest would be huge, as it would once again put the Flames on top, and the Oilers back in chase mode.

"It's a tight race," Matthew Tkachuk said, fresh off his return from the All-Star Game. "At this point in the year, our playoffs are now. We've got to be gearing up for these last 32 and be ready to win each and every night. 

"We've got some tough games coming up. Throughout the whole season we play a lot of games against divisional opponents and they're all four-point games. 

"It's very, very importance for us to start peaking and hopefully we can ride the wave for the rest of the season."

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