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Fleet Flames use break in the schedule to re-fuel for second-half playoff push

01/05/2015 06:50 EST | Updated 03/07/2015 05:59 EST
CALGARY - The Calgary Flames aren't one of the biggest or strongest teams in the NHL but they're among the fastest.

So they're using their current breather in the NHL schedule to top up the tanks for a second-half sprint to the playoffs.

At 21-16-3, Calgary was tied with the San Jose Sharks for eighth in the Western Conference on Monday. The Flames were on Day 3 of a four-day break between games.

Rookie sensation Johnny Gaudreau, captain Mark Giordano and big-minute defenceman T.J. Brodie were among the players who'd been given a day off from practice the previous day.

Calgary reaches the halfway point of the regular season after Wednesday's home game against the Detroit Red Wings. The Flames play three games in four days this week, but have another four days off after Saturday's game in Vancouver.

Any Flames players not chosen to participate in the NHL's all-star game Jan. 25 will get another four-day break later this month.

"I thought we handled the rest factor fairly well since Day 1 of the season," head coach Bob Hartley said Monday. "Obviously right now, January is a pretty good schedule for us.

"After this, obviously our positioning in the standings will dictate our approach on days off and practices."

Sportsnet tweeted prior to the start of the regular season that Calgary's opening-day roster was the league's smallest at an average of 196.3 pounds per player.

What the Flames lack in size they've made up for in tenacity and speed. Calgary flirted with the Pacific Division lead before an eight-game losing streak in December.

Calgary recovered by winning four of its last five, including a pair of victories over the Stanley Cup-champion Los Angeles Kings. The Flames have been an exciting team to watch this season with six of their wins coming the result of third-period rallies.

They have an extra gear that makes them a difficult team to put away. That style of hockey takes a physical toll, however.

Unless the Flames get beefier before the March 2 trade deadline, their playoff hopes ride on their lungs and legs, not their brawn.

A Flame who epitomizes that brand is Gaudreau, who answered questions about his stamina with an electrifying first half.

With 13 goals and 18 assists in 39 games, the 21-year-old winger is second in NHL rookie scoring behind Nashville's Filip Forsberg (14-23-38).

Gaudreau, a Calder Trophy candidate, has a turn of speed and quick hands that make him a scoring threat every time he steps on the ice. He was the league's rookie of the month in December with eight goals and five assists in 14 games.

His three third-period goals Dec. 22 in Los Angeles marked not only his first career hat trick, but Gaudreau was the catalyst in a 4-3 overtime win over the Kings.

Listed a five foot nine and 150 pounds, Gaudreau recognizes that sleep and food become crucial at this point in the season.

"I'm a bit of a picky eater but I eat as much healthy stuff as I can," he said Monday. "I get a ton of sleep.

"I try to get to bed at a decent hour so I can get between nine and 10 hours of sleep a night, which is pretty important for me. Sleep's pretty important for most athletes."

Combining his rookie-camp and pre-season games, the Boston College product is already in new territory in the number of games he's played in a season.

"The second half of the season is definitely going to be grind," Gaudreau acknowledged. "The college season is only 40 games and I'm way past that right now.

"It's a ton of little things off the ice that's going to help me be better for the second half of the season."

Hartley hinted he'll look to give Gaudreau more days off from practice if he can.

"Johnny has to be smart and we have to be smart also," the head coach said. "He's played more hockey right now than he's played all last year.

"It's a big adjustment for a first-year player. He's doing good so it's all about monitoring his practice time. Johnny away from the rink is also going to be very important, his nutrition, his rest and picking his spots at the right time."

The veterans don't require direction on how to regenerate. Forward Joe Colborne says he's spent a lot of time away from the rink during this break asleep.

"We're in hibernation-mode right now," Colborne said. "A two- or three-hour nap every day and you're still getting your eight or nine hours of sleep. Sometimes it's even more than that.

"Sometimes I'll have an hour nap, wake up and say 'I'm going right back to sleep' and set my alarm for another hour. You try and get those hours of sleep in the bank now to hopefully have enough for later."

The Flames face the dilemma of getting the rest required to keep playing thoroughbred hockey, but not lose their conditioning.

Any breathing room Calgary had in the standings earlier this season has evaporated. Unlike Anaheim, Nashville and Chicago, there are no "easy minutes" ahead for the Flames.

"You look at some of the teams we're trying to become, you look at the Chicago Blackhawks and they play a fast game and they get more rest days than anyone in the league," Colborne said. "They roll four lines and if you look at a game, they'll have won 5-1 against somebody.

"(Jonathan) Toews and (Patrick) Kane are playing 17 and a half or 18 minutes. There's no wonder why they're so fresh come playoff time because they're expecting to go on these long playoff runs. We're not there yet. We have to get to the playoffs. They're in a situation where they can do that."

NOTES: Karri Ramo will start in goal for Calgary on Wednesday . . . After missing most of the first half of the season with an abdominal injury that required surgery in November, centre Mikael Backlund skated Monday. Hartley said a decision on the Swede's return to the lineup will be made after Wednesday's pre-game skate.

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