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Races get tighter at three-quarters mark

by John Kreiser / Vancouver Canucks

The NHL season reaches the three-quarters pole today -- with all but four teams either in the top eight in their conference or within nine points of the top eight.

We're at the point where a hot week can send any team flying up the standings, while a bad week will have the opposite effect.

Here's a look at how the races in each conference shape up after Thursday night's games:

Division leaders:

(87 points after Thursday's 3-2 home win against St. Louis) blew a 2-0 lead but got the game-winner from Manny Malhotra in the third period to beat the Blues and stay on top of the overall standings. Backup goaltender Cory Schneider made 28 stops and continues to show that he's reliable enough to keep coach Alain Vigneault from having to overwork starter Roberto Luongo. The Canucks are 2-1-0 halfway through a six-game homestand.

(80 points after Thursday's 4-1 home loss to Dallas) heads out for a five-game trip after another disappointing home loss. Two days after falling 4-3 to San Jose, the Wings spotted the Stars a 2-0 lead late in the first period and never recovered. Detroit starts its trip in Buffalo on Friday before heading to the West Coast.

San Jose
(76 points) plays its 10th road game of the month when it visits Calgary on Friday. The Sharks have won seven of the first nine, including Wednesday's 3-2 OT win at Pittsburgh. But the schedule eases off after Friday -- the Sharks have three days off, then play 13 of their last 19 at home, including their first six games in March.

The next five:

Phoenix (75 points) spent Thursday licking its wounds after an 8-3 rout at Tampa Bay on Wednesday brought its eight-game winning streak to a shattering conclusion. The Coyotes are in Columbus on Friday and conclude their five-game trip in Chicago on Sunday.

Los Angeles (72 points after Thursday's 4-2 home win against Minnesota) avoided the dreaded "first game home after a long road trip" jinx by fending off the Wild in its return from a 10-game road trip. Wayne Simmonds had a pair of goals as the Kings improved to 10-1-3 in their last 14 games and moved out of the pile of 70-point teams into fifth place by winning the opener of a six-game homestand

Minnesota (70 points after Thursday's 4-2 loss at Los Angeles) got off to a bad start in its two-game swing through Southern California by losing at L.A. The Wild fell behind the Kings but is at the head of the pack of five teams tied with 70 points because they have the most non-shootout wins -- they have just two; the others have at least four.

Chicago (70 points after Thursday's 3-0 win at Nashville) is starting to look like the team that ended the franchise's 49-year Stanley Cup drought last spring. The Hawks welcomed back coach Joel Quenneville, who missed four games with a bleeding ulcer, by shutting down the Predators and moving back into the top eight in the West. The Hawks have won three in a row and four of their last five.

Dallas (70 points afterThursday's 4-1 win at Detroit) may have saved its season by beating the Wings. The Stars had been 1-8-1 and dropped five in a row before Kari Lehtonen stopped 38 shots to give Dallas three wins in four games against Detroit this season and put the Stars back into the top eight. They also got some good news on the injury front -- center Brad Richards, sidelined with what's believed to be a concussion, was able to skate Thursday.

On the outside looking in:

Nashville (70 points after Thursday's 3-0 home loss to Chicago) has lost its scoring touch. The Predators were blanked for the second game in a row and have dropped their last three to fall out of the top eight in the West.

Calgary (70 points) had to sit and watch the other contenders play during the last two days while waiting for San Jose to come to the Scotiabank Saddledome for a showdown on Friday night. The Flames are also home to St. Louis on Sunday -- they get a break, since the Blues will be playing on back-to-back nights and for the fifth time in seven days.

Anaheim (68 points) will have a new face in goal when Minnesota comes to Honda Center on Friday. Either recent signee Ray Emery or newly acquired Dan Ellis will be in the net against the Wild after GM Bob Murray dealt away backup Curtis McElhinney to get Ellis from Tampa Bay. The Ducks have dropped four in a row without injured starter Jonas Hiller.

Columbus (66 points) hopes to keep rolling when Phoenix comes to Nationwide Arena on Friday night. The Jackets are 7-1-1 in their last night, rescuing their season after it appeared they were ready to drop too far behind to catch up.

St. Louis (63 points after Thursday's 3-2 loss at Vancouver) put up a spirited fight against the NHL's top team but came up short again. The Blues, 9-14-5 on the road, visit Edmonton on Friday and Calgary two nights later to wrap up the most grueling week in the NHL this season -- five games in seven days, a grind set up by a Feb. 1 postponement.
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