It wasn't long ago when the Calgary Flames
sat No. 14 in the Western Conference standings and the 2011 Tim Hortons NHL Heritage Classic appeared as though it would represent a singular bright spot in an otherwise disappointing season.
Then the Flames went on a tear, beginning with a 7-4 win against the Dallas Stars
on Jan. 21 which started a 9-1-2 stretch. Now, Sunday's Heritage Classic represents much more than just skating outdoors at McMahon Stadium in front of upwards of 40,000 fans.
Instead, two very important points -- playoff-positioning points, perhaps -- will be at stake against the Montreal Canadiens
First, however, Calgary has two very important points at stake Wednesday night when Dallas returns to the Scotiabank Saddledome. The Flames, who start the day in eighth place, can tie the struggling Stars in the Western Conference standings with a regulation win. In fact, they could find themselves in a tie for the fourth seed by the end of the night depending on how games around the League play out.
So as much as the Flames are looking forward to Sunday's events, they certainly aren't looking ahead. Wednesday, to a man, the players said the focus was entirely on beating the Stars, who come off Tuesday's 4-1 loss in Edmonton.
"We're all really excited about the game Sunday, but there's a quite bit of excitement about tonight's game, about any game for us right now the way that our team's playing. The way that we feel, it's a good feeling to come to the rink every day." -- Tim Jackman
"This is a huge game here -- they're a couple points ahead of us," defenseman Mark Giordano
said following Wednesday morning's skate. "I don't think anyone's looking past it. That outdoor game is quite a ways away right now. They lost a game last night which will make them come out even more hungry. We've got to be ready. They're going to be a desperate team tonight."
Forward Niklas Hagman
is aware Heritage Classic hype has hit Calgary in full force during the past week but said that while it's great for the fans to build their excitement, the players aren't allowing themselves that luxury just yet.
"I'm pretty sure everyone else is [anticipating] the outdoor game, but obviously for us playing against Dallas that is in the race with us, it's a huge game for us," Hagman said. "I don't think any of us -- it's still so far away. I don't think there's any problems with anybody to get ready for tonight."
That includes forwards Olli Jokinen
and Tim Jackman
, both of whom left Monday's 9-1 rout of Colorado with lower-body injuries but participated in the morning skate and expect to play against Dallas.
"We're all really excited about the game Sunday, but there's a quite bit of excitement about tonight's game, about any game for us right now the way that our team's playing," said Jackman, who has already posted career highs this season with 10 goals and 20 points. "The way that we feel, it's a good feeling to come to the rink every day."
While the Flames shot up in the standings with their recent surge, all that's done is given them the opportunity to fight for a top-eight seed. Home-ice advantage in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs isn't out of the question if they continue winning games during the next eight weeks, but with 10 points separating third place in the West from 13th, any sort of prolonged losing streak could drop them right back where they were a month ago.
As a result of being in such a tight race and playing the busiest schedule in the League -- the Flames will become the first team to play their 60th game when they face the Stars -- captain Jarome Iginla
said the Heritage Classic has almost snuck up on the team.
"It feels like we've been playing every second day and traveling, so we haven't been thinking about it," he said. "It's exciting. It's coming here now. We're starting to talk about how the weather's going to be looking and seeing on the news and the excitement in how we're doing. … So it is exciting, but up until this week it's really just been playing games and that part of it."
The Flames have played before packed houses at the Saddledome and veterans like Iginla, who came within one win of the Stanley Cup in 2004, have experienced the passion of the fans come playoff time.
Sunday's game, though, promises to be its own unique experience, and the fact the two points up for grabs could end up making the difference in the Flames' season only adds to the drama.
"The whole atmosphere feels a lot better and I think even in our own rink we can feel the buzz starting to get up again," said Iginla, who carries a six-game points streak (3-6-9) into Wednesday's game. "We went through a tough stretch, understandably the fans weren't quite as excited here at home. We weren't winning and we were a fair way out of the playoffs. So you can kind of feel the atmosphere, the energy on a nightly basis start to come up. It's great, it's helped us a team and it's definitely more fun to play in front of."
It'll be even more enjoyable preparing over the next several days if the Flames beat the Stars. Forward Curtis Glencross
, who has 6 goals during a five-game scoring streak, was adamant the team will be all business when the puck drops Wednesday.
"Tonight's like every other night coming down the stretch here," he said. "We've got to win every game, as many games as we can. … We're not even worried about Sunday right now. We've got a game here tonight. Sunday will come. We'll start thinking about Sunday on Friday and Saturday when we're talking about the other team. We're not even thinking about that game."