The Northwest Division race would be compelling regardless of the contenders' scheduled opponents over the season's final three weeks.
It should be even better considering that they're almost exclusively facing each other.
The Colorado Avalanche and Minnesota Wild begin a frantic final push for the playoffs and division crown when they meet in St. Paul on Monday.
It's the first of three remaining meetings between the teams, who are part of a three-way tie with Calgary atop the division. Vancouver - the eighth-place team in the Western Conference - is only two points back.
Seven of Colorado's remaining nine games are against the Wild, Flames or Canucks, while seven of Minnesota's final 10 contests are against its top Northwest competition.
"As always, the next game is the biggest one for us," Minnesota goalie Niklas Backstrom said.
|The Avalanche and Wild are in a three-way tie with the Flames for first place in the Northwest Division. Colorado and Minnesota have three more meetings left in the regular season starting tonight in St. Paul. (AP Photo)
The Wild (38-26-8) pulled into a tie with Colorado with a 2-0 win over Los Angeles on Saturday, as Backstrom earned his first shutout in more than five months to help Minnesota end a five-game losing streak.
Backstrom stopped 24 shots and made Minnesota's two goals - the amount the Wild have scored in six of the past seven games - more than enough for the win.
"If we want to make the playoffs, that's the way it has to be," said Backstrom, whose last shutout was 2-0 over Edmonton on Oct. 10. "I have to be there and make the saves when the team needs that and help them so they don't have to score four or five goals every night."
Marian Gaborik scored one of Minnesota's goals Saturday, leaving him two shy of his career high of 38. The Wild are 22-2-2 when he scores, but he hasn't recorded a goal in three games against Colorado this season.
The Wild won all three of those games anyway, but the Avalanche (39-28-6) beat them twice this season when Gaborik was sidelined with a groin injury.
Colorado was without forwards Ryan Smyth and Joe Sakic when Minnesota beat the Avs 3-2 on Jan. 24. The Avalanche will have both players in uniform Monday, as Smyth returned from a concussion in Saturday's 4-2 loss to New Jersey.
Sakic recorded his 999th assist in that game, but Colorado lost for just the second time in the last 10 games.
"It wasn't one of our better performances in the last two weeks," Sakic said. "We need to put this one behind us now. We have nine (games) left in our division, all four-point games. We have to be ready for those."
Colorado is still battling injuries, and could be without a pair of former Avalanche mainstays who returned to the team in recent weeks.
Defenseman Adam Foote - acquired from Columbus last month - has missed the last two games with a hip injury, and forward Peter Forsberg has been out four games with a groin injury. He's played in only three contests since the signing with the Avs.
"We're getting players back from injury, especially guys we have down right now - big parts of our team," Colorado defenseman John-Michael Liles said. "Our game will continue to get better and this is the time that we need them here in this stretch and heading into the playoffs."