After squeaking into the playoffs the past two seasons, the Calgary Flames are well aware that a quick start could make things much calmer in the spring.
Last season, the Flames nestled into the seventh seed in the Western Conference one year after finishing eighth - earning the final postseason berth with one more point than Northwest Division rival Colorado.
Calgary's first five games of this season are against teams within the Northwest, including two against Vancouver to open the campaign and a home-and-home series this weekend versus Edmonton.
The Flames lost the opener at Vancouver 6-0 and then fell in overtime at home two nights later. They finally earned their first win of the season by beating Colorado on Tuesday.
Every team will play clubs in its division six times this season instead of eight to allow for more interconference games.
``The parity of it is very, very good. It's a challenge every night,'' Flames defenseman Dion Phaneuf said. ``Those games are so big, playing your division that many times. Those points become must-win games because at the end of the year you can't get those points back.
hen you open early against division rivals in the first month of the season, you have to get points. That's going to be the key, to get off to a good start.''
Although it limits games within the division, Phaneuf is looking forward to lining up against every team in the Eastern Conference at least once, and visiting cities that often aren't on the schedule.
``It doesn't only help us as players to see other teams and other players, but it gives a lot to the fans,'' he said. ``What it comes down to is we play the game to entertain the fans and to win. The fan base has been growing throughout the league and I think this is going to help everything that much more.''
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FIGHTING WORDS: Rangers defenseman Paul Mara had enough of Buffalo's Patrick Kaleta and took matters into his own hands - and fists.
Back in February, Kaleta drilled Mara and broke bones in his face that required surgery and knocked him out of the New York lineup for 12 games. Kaleta took another flying run at Mara again this week, only this time he didn't connect and then paid the price.
In a flash, Mara unloaded punches on Kaleta, who decided to curl up and take the punishment instead of fighting back. It worked to the point that the Sabres earned a five-minute power play that produced the winning goal in a 3-1 victory Wednesday night at Madison Square Garden and earned Mara an ejection.
gers teammates were squarely in his corner.
``Paul Mara has been one of our best defensemen,'' forward Scott Gomez said. ``You're never going to blame this on him. That's hockey. It would have been nice to kill it off. He did what he had to do. We've got his back, 100 percent.''
Mara took offense to Kaleta's ``running around'' and was critical of his decision to then not engage him once the gloves came off.
``In the scrum he made a pretty classless move, asking me how my face was,'' Mara said. ``You don't want to hurt guys in this league and to have him say something like that, it's classless. I remember that and I will always remember that. I did what I had to do and it's over now.
``He wasn't a man to stand in there but he can leave his feet whenever he wants and run around but he didn't have the guts to do anything about it.''
Kaleta countered that he was just doing his job of being physical, and decided that gaining a long power play for his team far outweighed fighting Mara.
``I'm kind of used to it,'' he said with a smile. ``That happens from time to time. Guys sometimes don't really like to be hit and that's what I like to do. I like to hit. It comes with the territory. I've got to contribute to the team and I was happy to do that.''
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HAGGLING FOR HOSSA: Red Wings general manager Ken Holland had his sights on Marian Hossa long before he got him signed in July.
hen the Atlanta Thrashers put their prized commodity on the market before last season's trade deadline, Holland made a pitch before Hossa was shipped to the Pittsburgh Penguins.
``Ultimately we didn't offer up enough,'' Holland said. ``He went to Pittsburgh and obviously played tremendous hockey for them. I really thought that he was going to remain in Pittsburgh.''
Hossa and the Penguins reached the Stanley Cup finals before Holland's Red Wings ended their run. Given a second chance, Holland again went after the high-scoring forward when he became an unrestricted free agent.
And again he thought he'd come up short.
``On July 1st, shortly after noon, I called (agent) Ritch Winter and told him that we were prepared to make him an offer. I went to bed that night, saw on the internet that teams were offering more term, more annual salary and way bigger commitments than we were prepared to go.
``I really went to bed figuring we were out of the sweepstakes. I woke up the morning of July 2nd, phone rang at 8:30 in the morning as I was getting gas at a Mobil station. It was Ritch Winter asking me what I thought about Marian coming to Detroit on a one-year deal. I said, 'Love it.'''
Enter coach Mike Babcock to seal the deal.
ad come to the one-year deal at $7.45 million. Beyond that, Marian really made this happen.''
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TUNING IN: Versus began the regular season with its best opening night ratings.
The network ran a doubleheader, featuring the Stanley Cup champion Detroit Red Wings at home against Toronto in the opener. It earned a 0.5 National HH rating. The nightcap of Boston against Colorado received a 0.3 rating.
The telecast of the Red Wings and Maple Leafs was the most-watched regular-season NHL game on Versus with 360,944 households and 572,897 total viewers. That topped the New York Rangers-Pittsburgh Penguins game on March 31.
The opening night ratings were 33 percent higher than last season's first night. Total viewership also rose 17 percent from a year ago.

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