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Flames remain focused despite 'Classic' excitement

by Dave Lozo
CALGARY -- The sight of the Flames practicing Friday in the cream-colored pants and maroon-and-gold striped socks they'll wear in Sunday's game against the Montreal Canadiens in the 2011 Tim Hortons NHL Heritage Classic provided the perfect metaphor for their unique situation.

There's no denying everyone is anticipating the historic outdoor game at McMahon Stadium like a kid waiting for Santa Claus to slide down the chimney on Christmas, but it's also a game that has a valuable two points on the line.

The Flames are in ninth place in the Western Conference, but only two points behind the fourth-place Nashville Predators. There's nothing wrong with enjoying the excitement around the Heritage Classic, but the Flames can't lose sight of the big picture.

"That's going to be the balance we have to find," said captain Jarome Iginla. "It's a fun experience. For a lot of us, it's going to be once in a lifetime. It's going to be pretty cool, but it is a very important game for us. Two points means so much right now. We want to enjoy it, but at the same time, make sure we're prepared."

That's why coach Brent Sutter put his team through a tough 70-minute practice after Thursday's day off. He didn't skate his team into the ground, but it was a gentle reminder that the Flames weren't going to get away from the routine that has resulted in a 16-4-5 record in their past 25 games.

"It's a good thing for the city of Calgary, the fans, you name it, everybody involved," Sutter said. "But as the coach of the hockey team, I have to make sure they're as focused as they can be come Sunday. It's a big game for us."

Much of the talk around the Flames locker room after practice Friday was about how they would combat the frigid weather that's in the forecast for Saturday's practice at McMahon Stadium and Sunday's game. Meteorologists are calling for the temperatures to fall as low as -13 degrees Celsius this weekend, a number even the proudest Canadian will admit is a bit daunting.

"I was pretty excited for a while. People were talking about plus-2, plus-1, minus-1," Iginla said. "Now I hear minus-11 or minus-10. It's not quite as exciting but maybe it'll change still. If not, we'll make the most of it."

If defenseman Mark Giordano was nervous about the weather reports, he certainly didn't show it.

"I think you just to get used to it," he said. "I don't think it'll be too bad. From what I hear from the guys who've played in it in the past, once you get going it's not bad. We'll find out tomorrow and the next day."

Defenseman Steve Staios played in the 2003 Heritage Classic as a member of the Edmonton Oilers. The game-time temperature at Commonwealth Stadium for that game was -18 degrees, so that experience should serve him well Sunday if history repeats itself.

"It was very, very cold," Staios said. "That game was more of a test of will. The puck was bouncing. There wasn't much flow to the game. Depending on the ice conditions (Sunday), I think you'll see a fast, quick game if the weather does cooperate."

Backup goaltender Henrik Karlsson, who will likely spend the duration of Sunday's game seated on a heated bench as starter Miikka Kiprusoff faces the Habs, said he has no plans to wear extra insulation or change his routine.

Friday's practice was also a day for players to break in their equipment that is specially made for the Heritage Classic, but it was also a chance to listen to players try a turn as fashion critics.

"I like the uniforms," Iginla said. "I don't know about the pants. It's definitely different."

Staios was asked if there are any advantages to getting to wear the socks a couple days in advance of the game.

"I think maybe it's an advantage because they're mesmerizing the other team," Staios said. "Maybe it'll make them dizzy."

As much fun as the Flames were having, it all kept coming back to the importance of the game and not so much the spectacle of it. The Canadiens come into Sunday's game having lost five of six and will be far more interested in getting back on track than playing outdoors, so the Flames know they can't let their guard down.

"We're not talking as if it's a huge game. We haven't been talking about it for a long time," said forward Alex Tanguay, who spent the 2008-09 season with the Habs. "We're just preparing the same way as a regular game. Sure, it's exciting. Most of them are. This will be different for sure, and there will be family and friends and all that, it's still our job to make sure we're focused."

Follow Dave Lozo on Twitter: @DaveLozo

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