Calgary Flames in playoff picture, gear up for hectic start to 2017

Flames gear up for hectic start to 2017

CALGARY — Glen Gulutzan has established in his first season as head coach of the Calgary Flames that he’s not afraid of an empty ice surface.

With 13 games in 23 days before the NHL’s all-star break, including a trio of two games in two days, not practising is going to sometimes be the smarter option in January, Gulutzan says.

“We’re going to really watch our days off meaning we’re going to take some and make sure game days are specifically what they are. They’re work days,” he said Tuesday.

“We’re going to try to manage our energy throughout this time.”

The Flames (20-17-2) are at home to the Colorado Avalanche on Wednesday before their first back-to-back of the month Saturday and Sunday versus the Vancouver Canucks.

Gulutzan kept the Flames off the ice four days over an eight-day span in December, including two consecutive days without a skate.

Calgary was digging itself out of an early-season hole and climbing up the standings at the time, but Gulutzan felt his team’s execution was fraying due to fatigue.

The coach wanted some rest in the bank to draw on later.

“Rest is like anything else. It’s like practising your power play,” he said. “Maybe the results don’t come right away, but you get them later on.”

The Flames near the halfway mark of their 2016-17 season in playoff contention and gearing up for the grind of January and February.

“Games 40 through 65 are the toughest,” Gulutzan said. “January, February and even into a little bit of March, these are the two toughest months in the league for me, and I think for our guys. Games get real tight.

“This is where we have to be good.”

Gulutzan said he’d heard that Chicago Bears running back Walter Payton was coach Mike Ditka’s barometer for team fatigue because Payton was such a workhorse for the NFL team.

“If Walter was tired, he knew the team was tired,” Gulutzan said.

Gulutzan’s Walter Payton is captain Mark Giordano, perennially the fittest player in training camp testing and a defenceman who logs almost 25 minutes per game.

Giordano smiled at the reference and said Gulutzan has “opened my eyes” to the importance of recovery.

Calgary’s captain also pointed to the league-leading Columbus Blue Jackets, who dropped game-day skates this season.

“All of us take pride in keeping ourselves in top shape, but I think as the years have gone on, what we’ve learned more about is how important rest is,” Giordano said.

“It used to be, the harder you worked, the better right? Now it’s more about working smart and managing yourself and your rest.

“This stretch coming up here, it’s really important to pile up the points. You don’t want to be chasing in the last 20 games trying to catch teams.”

Calgary’s power play and penalty kill that were terrible the first month of the season were much improved by December.

The Flames are the most penalized team in the NHL (475 minutes), but have compensated with a league-leading seven short-handed goals and a penalty kill running at 87 per cent since mid-November.

The Edmonton Oilers (19-12-1) sit third in the Pacific Division above Calgary in fourth, so a Battle of Alberta revival is brewing.

The Oilers also face a compressed schedule of 13 games in 23 days before the all-star break, albeit with just two back-to-backs. The provincial rivals square off Jan. 14 in Edmonton and Jan. 21 in Calgary.

“We both have to find a way to get into playoffs and hopefully find a way to play each other,” Giordano said. “That’s what will take the rivalry to the next level.”

Donna Spencer, The Canadian Press