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Flames battle Avalanche for eighth spot in West

by Matthew Mankiewich
FLAMES (39-29-9) at AVALANCHE (41-28-7)

Last 10 -- Calgary 5-5-0; Colorado 4-5-1

Season series --
It's the final meeting of six, and the one that matters most. Strangely, every game played so far has ended with the same score -- 3-2. The Avalanche added to a winning streak started last year, taking the first four games to extend it to six overall, while the Flames put a stop to it in Denver on St. Patrick's Day.

Big story -- "It's going to be the biggest game of the year," Calgary forward Rene Bourque said after Wednesday night's 2-1 home win over the Phoenix Coyotes. "They've been struggling so they're definitely going to be ready for us, but we've played well there this year. This is the time of the year everyone wants to play hockey and this is when the best players have to be your best players."

Trouble is, for many teams this has not been the case. Taking a look at the "Last 10" column in the NHL standings reveals something interesting. While Detroit (9-0-1) and Nashville (7-2-1) have turned up the heat and have the fifth and sixth seeds to show for it, most teams still in contention have hovered around .500 their last 10 games, including these two, leaving races in both conferences wide open despite the diminishing number of games remaining. Even still, the Avs remain a mere five points behind the Preds for the 5-spot.

Team scope:

Flames -- Sometimes you have to hit bottom before you start rising up again, and the two stinkers the Flames turned in on Long Island and in Boston may have been the bottoming-out point. They proceeded to Washington, scored four first-period goals and snuck out with a 5-3 win before anyone woke up. Then, on Wednesday night, they answered coach Brent Sutter's call for greater intensity with another sharp performance in a 2-1 victory over the Phoenix Coyotes, their fifth straight home win, and more importantly, one that put them back in the mix, where a regulation win tonight would tie Colorado for a playoff spot.

"After (Boston), the leaders stepped up and we had a good talk in the locker room," Mikael Backlund told the Calgary Herald. "We came together as a group after that game. Then, before the Washington game, Brent was very honest about how bad we were and how much better we have to be.

"It feels good in the group right now. Hopefully, we can keep winning games."

Avalanche -- Even records over 10 games can be deceptive. When the Flames beat the Avs two weeks ago, Colorado had been riding a three-game winning streak and held the fifth seed, six points ahead of eighth-place Detroit. A 1-5-1 record since has them struggling to keep their heads above the cutoff line.

While the Flames were righting themselves, the Avalanche foundered, losing 5-2 to the Ducks at the Pepsi Center, a turnover-plagued game that saw Jason Blake total five points and the Avs hold a 16-minute meeting afterward before the media was let into the locker room.

"There's no room for panic," captain Adam Foote told the Denver Post. "We have to regroup. The quick fix is remembering how we got here, remembering how we've had success in the season. It's true for every team -- when you give turnovers in the middle of the ice when you're forcing plays, that's when you're going to get into trouble. That's where we need to be more patient."

Who's hot --
Bourque has two goals and two assists in his last two games. Ales Kotalik scored the game-winner against Phoenix and the opening goal in Washington. Backlund has three assists in those two games for a plus-4 rating.

Injury report --
Brandon Yip and Stephane Yelle are scheduled to return to action for the Avs on Friday night. Yip had been out with a shoulder injury since Mar. 1, while Yelle went down with a leg injury Mar. 14. Both players participated in practice Thursday and should be ready, as will forward David Koci (hand). Forward David Jones (knee) has been skating with an orange non-contact jersey. … Calgary center Daymond Langkow spoke to reporters for the first time since getting hit in the back of the neck with a puck and is "taking it day to day."

Stat pack -- Should the two teams finish tied in the standings, the tiebreakers are wins, head-to-head points and goal differential. Right now the Avs hold all three and will definitely keep at least one, having at least four wins out of six regular-season contests.

Puck drop -- "Two teams that really need to win. Which one works harder and smarter, which goaltender plays better … it's going to be huge for both. But it's not over after that, either." -- Calgary forward Niklas Hagman.

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