The marathon known as the National Hockey League regular season is over.
Let the post-season sprint begin.
The Calgary Flames, who led the Northwest Division for most of the season, saw that lead slip away in the final weeks of the season and ended up finishing second in the Northwest and fifth in the Western Conference. And that means a date with the upstart youngsters from Chicago.
HOW TO GET PLAYOFF TICKETS
The Calgary Flames, Calgary Coop stores and participating Sport Chek stores will make at least 1,300 tickets per game available for the first round of the 2009 playoffs.
- 600 tickets, various price ranges in an online draw. Register at calgaryflames.com by clicking here
- 500 Sport Chek section tickets. Ballots available April 10, 2009
- 200 tickets, random draw, at local Calgary Coop stores. Ballots available April 9, 2009
The teams met four times in the regular season with the Hawks winning all four games, one in overtime. The Flames were outscored 19-7 by the Hawks.
On top of that the Flames will face an old nemesis in Hawks goaltender Nikolai Khabibulin who improved his regular season record against the Flames to 22-5-2 this season as he was the goalie of record in three of the Hawks wins over the Flames. Couple that with the fact that the last time Khabibulin faced the Flames in the playoffs he was with Tampa Bay when the Lightning won the Stanley Cup final over Calgary in seven games.
"The bottom line is we have to find ways to score. We have to get a lot of shots and a lot of traffic in front of the net," said forward Olli Jokinen
That the Flames were not a force down the stretch and watched as the Vancouver Canucks surged past them to the division crown this weekend is now not a concern. What's in the past is in the rear view mirror.
"When the playoffs come it's not about a (flicking) a switch. We have done a lot of good things as a team over the season. We have won games in a lot of different ways. We'll draw on things like that and think of things like that," said captain Jarome Iginla
. "It's been a grind down the stretch here. Unfortunately we didn't win the division. But that's behind us now."
"At first, when you realize you are not going to win the division, you are disappointed. It's exciting. Chicago is a good match-up for us. We are looking forward to it. It's nice to know your opponent."
All that being said, the Flames need to be able to shift their offence into high gear for Chicago. "We all have to be more determined," said Iginla.
Of primary concern is the power play -- special teams being critical in the post season. The Flames were 0-43 in the final 10 games of the season. Against the Hawks this season they were one-for-20 with the man advantage.
The mood in the Flames room is not about doom and gloom -- although newspaper reports, internet bloggers and message boards are full of all the negatives.
"I don't think we are fragile. We have been playing with a short roster. We haven't played our best hockey. I think we know that, which is important. I think we know why and we need to correct it and be better," said Adrian Aucoin, putting a blunt spin on the Flames. "There have been a lot of excuses lately and I am not going to make any more."
The Flames played the last two games of the season with 15 skaters and two goalies, three below the roster maximum because of injuries and salary cap complications. Once the playoffs begin, the salary cap no longer applies so the Flames will ice full line-ups. There is still uncertainty regarding the return of steady defencemen Robyn Regehr and Cory Sarich
as well as forward Rene Bourque. However, there are indications that some or all of those players will be ready for the Chicago series. Curtis Glencross
and Dion Phaneuf remained sidelined for Saturday's Battle of Alberta with undisclosed injuries. However, team officials said had the game against Edmonton meant something int he standings, Phaneuf likely would have dressed.
"We're going to have a full line-up soon. That will be big," said forward Craig Conroy.
On the stats sheet Hawks Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews and Martin Havlat have all had strong offensive outings this year against Calgary. They'll also need to worry about Patrick Sharp and Troy Brouwer up front as well as Brian Campbell and Duncan Keith on the back end.
On the other side of the coin, the Hawks are a young team and the Flames have far more experience, both in the NHL and the playoffs. The young guns from Chicago will, no doubt, be feeling the pressure to perform as hockey has gone through a rejuvenation in Chicago.
'It's a different season," said forward Eric Nystrom. " We've got a lot of experienced guys in this room and that goes a long way in the NHL playoffs."
The series will likely begin Thursday with the first two games in the Windy City.
The Flames know they have not played well against the Hawks this season.
"We haven't played out best hockey against them yet, either," said Aucoin, who came to the Flames in a trade from the Hawks two seasons ago.
Both the Flames and Hawks survived the marathon regular season. We'll soon see who is ready for the sprint.