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Olympic break the pause that refreshes Flames

by Todd Kimberley
CALGARY -- How did the Calgary Flames spell relief?
While all 30 NHL teams have had to deal with the stress of a compressed schedule due to the Olympic break, there was certainly no club that welcomed the arrival of the Vancouver 2010 Winter Games with greater exultation than the Flames.
For numerous reasons, the Pengrowth Saddledome was a pressure cooker with gauges climbing into the red zone -- and the Olympic hiatus probably saved a gasket or two from being blown.
"It was good to get away," forward Eric Nystrom told Calgary's FAN 960 Radio as the Flames (30-23-9) reconvened for practice ahead of their first post-Olympic date, March 3 at home against the Minnesota Wild.
"I'm not a huge fan of taking 10 days off in the middle of the season, because then you've gotta get the wheels turning again, and start from scratch," he said. "But it's been stressful around here.
"We've been in such a tight race. A lot of things have been going on around here. And I noticed as soon as I got away, the stress kind of melted away for a little bit. That's good. Sometimes you've got to clear your mind."
Nystrom's personal stress meter had crept back from the danger zone on Feb. 13, the Flames' final game before players scattered, when he ended a personal 43-game goal-less drought in a 3-1 win over visiting Anaheim.
And even if the club did head out on hiatus with a 4-3-3 record in its final 10 games before the Olympic break, things had been going unspeakably wrong for a club picked by many to win the Northwest Division this season.
The Flames lost nine games in a row through the month of January, coming dangerously close to equaling the club record of 11, set way back in 1986.
Through that stretch was an 0-5-1 run at the Saddledome, where they're an anemic 15-14-3 on the season. The club's home record is a source of great embarrassment, especially considering that the Flames had been virtually unbeatable in front of the "C of Red" since returning from the lockout.
And Brent Sutter's crew had taken the "snakebitten" status to a virtual art form, scoring 2 goals or less in 14 of 19 games between Jan. 6 and Feb. 11.
Through it all, the Flames plunged from third overall in the Western Conference all the way to ninth, at times, on the outside of the playoff picture looking in. As the NHL gears up again, they're eighth in the West, clinging to the conference's final postseason berth, with Dallas, Detroit and Anaheim breathing down their necks.
"It was nice to get a mental break," defenseman Cory Sarich told reporters. "Nice to give the body a chance to heal up, too. A few bumps and bruises are gone now. A few days of practice here and we'll be back to the mental grind.
"I tried for a good part of (the break) to just forget about everything. It's almost like a fresh start. But right now, we're back at the rink. Automatically, your mind starts going. It's shifting gears already."
That's probably a necessity, since the Flames play their final 20 regular-season games over a 39-day stretch.
"We've got to make sure we're ready to rock for the next 20 games," Nystrom said. "You can't ease into it; you've got to be ready to go."
As for Sutter, he didn't afford himself the luxury of time off in February.
"You're thinking about this last part of the season, this last stretch, and what you need to do and how you need to play to be successful," the Flames' head coach told reporters. "You start focusing on that ... and it hasn't really left my mind, to be quite honest. You don't get away from it mentally."
The players, added Sutter, "understood the situation leaving and what we need to do when we get back."
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