Playoff berth will be a fight to the finish for Flames

The Calgary Flames enter the home stretch of their race to the NHL playoffs intent on keeping the lightning firmly in the bottle. It seemed improbable that a team in the second year of a rebuild, and one that lost captain and Norris Trophy candidate Mark Giordano with 21 games to go, would be in the playoff hunt.

CALGARY — The Calgary Flames enter the home stretch of their race to the NHL playoffs intent on keeping the lightning firmly in the bottle.

It seemed improbable that a team in the second year of a rebuild, and one that lost captain and Norris Trophy candidate Mark Giordano with 21 games to go, would be in the playoff hunt.

But the Flames continue to exceed the moderate expectations of them this season. With three games remaining in the regular season, Calgary remains positioned to end a five-year-playoff drought.

And it’s somehow fitting that a team that built a reputation for third-period comebacks will draw on those reserves for a hard finishing kick to the NHL wire this weekend.

The Flames finish out the regular season against the two clubs threatening to beat them out of a playoff berth — the Los Angeles Kings at home on Thursday and the Winnipeg Jets on the road Saturday.

“I don’t who made the schedule, but this guy has a flare for drama,” Flames coach Bob Hartley said Monday following practice.

Calgary (43-29-7) is battling the Kings for third in the Pacific Division, as well as Winnipeg for the last wild card berth in the Western Conference.

The Kings and Jets both had a game in hand on Calgary but both played Monday night.

The Flames are aware of the stakes in their last two games of the season, but there is also the matter of hosting the Arizona Coyotes on Tuesday.

Teams out of the playoff race can impact those still in it. A 3-2 shootout decision to the also-ran Toronto Maple Leafs on Sunday dealt a blow to the playoff prospects of the Ottawa Senators in the Eastern Conference.

“The media is talking about the last two games, but we as a group, we’re really focused on this (Arizona) game because we know they’re a dangerous group,” Flames defenceman Kris Russell said.

“We’ve got to be at our best this last week. We have a lot of guys in here who have been playing really well. We need that to continue.”

After working with a tandem of Jonas Hiller and Karri Ramo during the season, Hiller is Calgary’s starter for the foreseeable future.

Ramo is said to be day-to-day with a lower-body injury suffered Saturday in Edmonton. The Finn appeared to pull a muscle in his leg in the first minute. Hiller made 27 saves in relief for the 4-1 win.

“I had stretches where I played a lot and stretches where I played a little less,” Hiller said. “It’s kind of nice to have a stretch coming up hopefully, but at the same time take it game by game. I really hope I can help the team.

“I feel good about my game right now. I’ve got to prove it every night again. The big goal is to make the playoffs. To do that, I’ve got to play at my best. Everybody has to.”

Calgary has called up Brad Thiessen from Adirondack to back up Hiller. Joni Ortio, who gave up a combined five goals in four wins over division rivals in a January call-up, was not available because of a high ankle sprain.

An intriguing recall late last week was 18-year-old forward Sam Bennett, who was the fourth overall pick in the NHL draft last year. Shoulder surgery in October has delayed his NHL debut.

Bennett re-joined the Ontario Hockey League’s Kingston Frontenacs in March, putting up 11 goals and 13 assists in 11 games. He had three assists in four playoff games.

Bennett says he feels ready to play his first NHL game, but Hartley indicated that, barring injury, his lineup Tuesday remains the same as it was in Edmonton.

“Yes, he’s going to play, but I can’t tell you when,” Hartley said. “You’ll have to stay tuned.”

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