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Flames win against Sabres must be start of playoff push

Players, management aware there's no wiggle room in tight race

by Mike Zeisberger @Zeisberger / Staff Writer

BUFFALO -- Dougie Hamilton didn't need to hear the entire question before providing his answer.

Hamilton and the Calgary Flames defeated the Buffalo Sabres 5-1 at KeyBank Center on Wednesday, a victory in which the visitors dominated every aspect of the game.

The win came one day after Flames starting goalie Mike Smith returned to practice for the first time in almost a month. Smith has been out since he sustained a lower-body injury in the final seconds of a 3-2 victory at the New York Islanders on Feb. 11.


[RELATED: Flames gain in wild card with win | Smith returns to practice with Flames]


With that information in mind, a Buffalo reporter wanted to know if there was any correlation between Smith's return to the ice and the Flames' subsequent impressive win. Even though Smith isn't ready to play yet, perhaps seeing him working out with his teammates might have given the Flames a lift.

Video: CGY@BUF: Giordano hammers home big point-drive

At least that was the premise presented to Hamilton by the reporter when the Flames defenseman met the media after the game.

The exchange went like this:

Reporter: "This may be subconscious, but this result comes after Mike Smith rejoins you guys on the ice. Do you think that …"

"No," responded Hamilton, not waiting for the reporter to finish.

Reporter: "But, well …"

"No," Hamilton repeated.

Hamilton's point: Smith's potential return isn't what is providing motivation for the Flames. Fighting for a berth in the Stanley Cup Playoffs is.

"Every game is must-win for us," Hamilton said. "That's the way we have to treat it every time we go out there."

Video: CGY@BUF: Hamilton extends lead on the power play

Aside from forward Johnny Gaudreau, Smith (23-16-6, 2.53 goals-against average, .921 save percentage) was generally considered to be Flames MVP up until the time of his injury by teammates and management.

"It was tough losing him, but every team in the League has players that get hurt," general manager Brad Treliving said. "We can't use that as an excuse.

"We have no excuses. I really like our team and when we play like we did tonight, we show what we're capable of. But we've just been too inconsistent, and that's the frustrating part.

"The bottom line is, there is no wiggle room left for us."

One of the most perplexing aspects to the Flames' roller-coaster season for Treliving has been their struggles at Scotiabank Saddledome, where Calgary has gone 14-15-4. On the other hand, the Flames have flourished on the road (19-10-6).

"Our bugaboo all season has been our play at home," Treliving said. "I can't understand it or explain it, but that's in the past.

"Right now, our focus is clear. We have to build on our momentum. That's the main goal at this point."

Flames coach Glen Gulutzan stressed that same point during the second intermission. With his players holding a 5-0 lead, Gulutzan told his them the one-sided score line was something to build on moving forward.

"We need traction," Gulutzan said. "I stressed to our guys between periods that if we get this game, even as the coach who's not on the ice, you get more confident going into your next game.

"We all know when our team gets confident, they can get on a real good run. We've done it before. We did it last year. We've done it this year. Every little step is a big step for us."

Video: CGY@BUF: Bennett cleans up big rebound, opens scoring

The victory gave the Flames (33-25-10) 76 points. The Los Angeles Kings (36-25-5) hold the second wild card into the Stanley Cup Playoffs from the Western Conference with 77 points, the same amount as the Colorado Avalanche (35-24-7).

Flames fans are desperately hoping Smith will be back soon to help Calgary in the dogfight for a playoff berth, but Treliving refused to put a set timetable on his return.

"It's a weird injury and we certainly don't want to see it regress," Treliving said. "But I will say that it's positive that he's on the trip with us and he's felt good out on the ice for a couple of days.

"If he can string together a few days without any setbacks, it definitely will be encouraging."

In the meantime, the Flames will continue to rely on backup David Rittich, who was awarded by his teammates the ceremonial fireman's hat for player of the game. What would have been Rittich's first NHL shutout was spoiled by Sabres defenseman Casey Nelson with 18 seconds remaining in the third period.

"I don't care about that, I just care about the win," Rittich said. "Look how close the standings are. We need every point we can get."

Video: CGY@BUF: Rittich stops bids from O'Reilly, Reinhart

The win Wednesday started a four-game stretch for the Flames against teams who aren't in playoff position. They'll play their next game at the Ottawa Senators on Friday (7:30 p.m. ET; TSN5, RDS, SNW, NHL.TV), before returning home to play the Islanders on Sunday and the rival Edmonton Oilers on March 13.

In Hamilton's opinion, the Flames must take advantage of those opponents, whether Smith returns in time or not.

"We should win those games," he said. "If we want to make the playoffs, that's what we have to do."

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