Calgary Flames left winger Nigel Dawes, left, fights for control of the puck along the boards with Colorado Avalanche center Peter Mueller in the second period of an NHL hockey game in Denver on Wednesday, March 17, 2010. (THE ASSOCIATED PRESS/David Zalubowski)
DENVER - The NHL playoffs don't start until mid-April, but the desperate Calgary Flames decided to move up their post-season a month.
It paid dividends against the Colorado Avalanche.
Rene Bourque scored two goals, Vesa Toskala made 32 saves and the Flames beat Colorado 3-2 on Wednesday night to keep pace in the Western Conference playoff race.
Eric Nystrom also scored for the Flames, who are in ninth place with 79 points, one point behind idle Detroit for the final post-season spot with 12 games left.
"We talked about the playoffs started tonight," Toskala said. "Every game is huge from here on in."
The Flames had lost two straight, they were slipping in the race and they faced a team that had beaten them six straight times dating to last season.
But they put that adversity behind them Wednesday. Bourque got them rolling when he scored a short-handed goal on a breakaway 3:12 into the first period, and Nystrom made it 2-0 4:21 later with a shot from the slot.
Bourque made it 3-0 with his 22nd goal early in the second period.
"They had our number and it was time for us to respond," Bourque said. "We got off with a good start, getting a lucky break on the short-handed goal. I got a nice bounce and it turned into a nice night."
The Avalanche were playing their third game in four days and looked like it in the first period.
"A little bit of a slow start for us," Colorado coach Joe Sacco said. "We were trying to find our legs in the first period."
Colorado pushed back after falling behind by three goals. Craig Anderson, who finished with 31 saves, shut out the Flames for the rest of the game and the Avalanche started chipping away.
Toskala, acquired from Anaheim on March 3, kept the Avalanche off the board until late in the second period. He stopped Chris Durno on a breakaway with 7:34 left in the second, but the rookie got revenge more than a minute later.
Matt Hendricks skated around the back of the net and fired a shot from the left circle that went off Toskala's shoulder. The puck was loose in the crease before Durno tipped it inside the post with 6:16 left in the second.
The goal was reviewed but held up.
"I just crashed the net," Durno said. "I'm not sure if it hit my stick or my skate. I'd have to watch the replay."
Colorado continued to pressure Toskala and finally got its second goal when Milan Hejduk scored his 20th goal with 33 seconds left and Anderson on the bench for the extra attacker.
The Avalanche had another chance in the closing seconds but couldn't get the equalizer to overcome a slow start.
"We were buzzing at the end," Hejduk said. "We came out flat right out of the gate. They outplayed us the first period and then you play catchup hockey."
Colorado is trying to catch first place Vancouver in the Northwest Division and missed a chance to pull within a point of the idle Canucks. The Avalanche are fifth in the conference with 12 games remaining.
They also had a chance to move 11 points ahead of the Flames.
"This is a big game, not only trying to catch Vancouver but put these guys behind us," Hejduk said. "Now they're kind of in the hunt again and it's going to be a battle to the end."
For the Flames, every game is going to be a battle just to get into the playoffs.
"It was a huge road win," Calgary coach Brent Sutter said. "We knew we needed to play well and we're going to have to play well from here on in because every game is a big, big game for us."
NOTES: Calgary's last win over Colorado was a 1-0 victory in Denver on Nov. 20, 2008. ... Bourque has four short-handed goals this season. ... Avalanche C Peter Mueller had his seven-game points streak stopped. He had four goals and seven assists since his trade to Colorado on March 3. ... Avalanche D Ryan Wilson left the game in the first period with a head injury. He did not return.