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Calgary Flames look for second-half fuel in tight playoff race

CALGARY — The Calgary Flames may be in playoff contention nearing the halfway point of their regular season, but they have lots of company.

CALGARY — The Calgary Flames may be in playoff contention nearing the halfway point of their regular season, but they have lots of company.

The Flames (19-16-4) are in a clump of Western Conference teams gearing up for a second-half push to the NHL's post-season via their division or a conference wild-card berth.

No more than five points separated the Flames, Chicago Blackhawks, Colorado Avalanche, Minnesota Wild, Anaheim Ducks, Dallas Stars and San Jose Sharks from each other Wednesday.

Those seven clubs are in the conference's second tier behind frontrunners Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Winnipeg, St. Louis and Nashville.

"It's really tight this year," Flames captain Mark Giordano said Wednesday. "Feels like there's a lot more teams in the mix than years past.

"With how tight it is, you've got to start I think really start paying attention to who is around you, the standings and all that sort of stuff. Teams are moving up quick, teams are getting points every night so we've got to move up."

Calgary earned just 10 out of a possible 20 points against conference opponents in December, allowing San Jose, Anaheim, Colorado and Minnesota to pull ahead of the Flames in the standings.

The Flames need victories over the Kings (24-11-5) on Thursday and Ducks (19-14-8) on Saturday to equal the 21 wins Calgary owned at the halfway mark last season.

"These next two games are big," centre Sean Monahan said. "They're on home ice and they're against two rivals. We've got to create energy for ourselves.

"I think we have all the pieces we need in this room. We've just got to be more consistent here as a team and as individuals. Everyone's got to step up here and be ready to go every game."

A power-play that ranks 20th in the league (18.6 per cent) and a penalty kill at No. 25 (78 per cent) has been the biggest drag on Calgary's game.

"I think we could have a lot better record if our specialty teams were better," head coach Glen Gulutzan said.

Mike Smith (15-13-3) was busy man in Calgary's net in the first half facing 1,028 shots. Only New York's Henrik Lundqvist (1,045) and Toronto's Fred Anderson (1,125) faced more rubber among NHL starters.

Calgary's average shots against began dropping in December.

Goalie protection, however, was projected to be the team's strength out of training camp with Giordano, Dougie Hamilton, T.J. Brodie, Travis Hamonic and Mike Stone the top five defencemen.

Up front, left-winger Johnny Gaudreau is on pace for a career season in production at 1.10 points per game (13 goals, 30 assists.)

Monahan has delivered as a top-line centre should with six game-winning goals, a pair of OT winners and seven power-play goals this season.

Recent absences of veteran forwards Kris Versteeg (hip surgery) and Mikael Frolik (broken jaw) put a damper on Calgary's secondary scoring.

Jaromir Jagr, 45, has been in and out of the lineup with a lower-body injury and has scored once in 22 games.

"We generate enough to score," Gulutzan said. "We've got to do other things, getting to the net, tough areas, to kind of get more of those type of goals."

Giordano scored the OT winner Sunday in a 4-3 win over Chicago to get Calgary's home record to 10-11-0.

"Our last game was pretty good," the captain said. "We had two power play goals, some good kills, so let's try and build from there."

Donna Spencer, The Canadian Press