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Canucks beat Wings, take command in West

by John Kreiser
The Vancouver Canucks have staked their claim as the best in the West.

The Canucks, who've already locked up their third consecutive Northwest Division title, all but clinched the top playoff seed in the West on Wednesday night with a 2-1 victory at Detroit. NHL scoring leader Daniel Sedin scored both goals and Roberto Luongo stopped 39 shots to give the Canucks 105 points, 10 more than second-place Detroit, the leader in the Central Division and the second seed. Both teams have eight games remaining.

Vancouver also closed in on its first Presidents' Trophy as regular-season champion -- the Canucks lead Philadelphia, the top team in the East, by eight points.

Wednesday was a night off for the Eastern Conference playoff contenders.

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

Eastern Conference

Division leaders

Philadelphia (97 points) had a day off before hosting Pittsburgh on Thursday. Injured defenseman Chris Pronger took part in practice -- he wore a non-contact jersey but was able to stickhandle and do some shooting to test out his surgically tested hand. The Flyers hope he'll be ready when the playoffs start on April 13.

Washington (96 points) skated on its off-day after Tuesday's 5-4 shootout win at Philadelphia. Among those on the ice was injured captain Alex Ovechkin, who didn't play against the Flyers. Coach Bruce Boudreau said No. 8 could be back sometime next week.

Boston (90 points) had its full roster on the ice for practice prior to Thursday's visit from Montreal, a game both teams need as the Bruins try to hold off the Canadiens for first place in the Northeast Division.

The next five:

Pittsburgh (92 points) will bring defenseman Brooks Orpik to Philadelphia for Thursday's showdown with the Flyers. Orpik (broken finger) has been cleared to play, but coach Dan Bylsma wouldn't say if Orpik would dress. Sidney Crosby skated before practice as he works to recover from a concussion.

Tampa Bay (89 points) is trying to put the wheels back on after a 2-5-4 start to March that included a 5-2 home loss to the Islanders on Tuesday in which they turned the puck over 16 times. Still, a trip to the playoffs is all but assured -- the Bolts are 11 points ahead of Carolina entering this weekend's home-and-home series.

Montreal (87 points) is more interested in coming home from Boston with two more points than in exacting revenge for the hit by Bruins defenseman Zdeno Chara in their last meeting that sidelined Max Pacioretty. To do so, the Canadiens need to find some offense -- they had 31 shots on Tuesday but generated few good scoring chances against Ryan Miller in a 2-0 home loss to Buffalo.

New York Rangers (84 points) have another chance to pick up points when last-place Ottawa comes to Madison Square Garden on Thursday. After that, the Rangers head out for a four-game trip that begins Saturday afternoon in Boston.

Buffalo (81 points) had an optional practice Wednesday after coming home from Montreal with a 2-0 win. Among those who did skate were defenseman Steve Montador and forward Jochen Hecht, both of whom have been out with injuries. Coach Lindy Ruff said both are progressing, and that he'll know more about their availability for weekend home games against Florida and New Jersey after Thursday's practice.

On the outside looking in:

Carolina (78 points) didn't have captain Eric Staal at practice on Wednesday. But coach Paul Maurice said Staal, who left Tuesday's 4-3 win against Ottawa midway through the third period with a lower-body injury and didn't return, is expected to play Friday against Tampa Bay. Maurice gave goalie Cam Ward the day off after a 36-save performance against the Senators.

Toronto (76 points) skated in Denver on Wednesday prior to Thursday's game against the Avalanche. The game will be a homecoming for Leafs forwards Tyler Bozak and Joey Crabb, who played their college hockey in Colorado. The Leafs are making their first trip to Denver since a 7-4 win on Jan. 29, 2009, and just their ninth since the Avs relocated from Quebec in 1995.

Western Conference

Division leaders

Vancouver (105 points after Wednesday's 2-1 win at Detroit) all but assured itself of first place in the West by holding off the Wings behind a big night from Roberto Luongo and a pair of goals by Daniel Sedin, who reached the 40-goal mark for the first time in his career and leads the NHL with 95 points. The Canucks lead the NHL with 240 goals and are tied for the fewest goals allowed with 173.

Detroit (95 points after Wednesday's 2-1 home loss to Vancouver) saw virtually any chance of overtaking Vancouver for the top spot in the West disappear when the Canucks won at Joe Louis Arena. The Wings' big task for the rest of the season is to hold off Chicago and Nashville for the Central Division title and fend off San Jose (the likely Pacific Division winner) for the second seed.

San Jose (94 points after Wednesday's 6-3 home win against Calgary) had 13 players get at least one point in the victory against the struggling Flames. Joe Pavelski, the NHL's First Star last week, stayed hot with a pair of assists and Patrick Marleau scored twice as the Sharks moved within a point of Detroit for the No. 2 seed in the West. They can pass the Wings by winning in Los Angeles on Thursday.

The next five:

Phoenix (91 points) continues its homestand on Thursday with another meeting against a non-playoff team when Columbus comes to Arena. The Coyotes have split a pair of 2-1 games so far --losing 2-1 to Chicago on Sunday and struggling to beat St. Louis on Tuesday.

Chicago (88 points after Wednesday's 4-0 home win against Florida) jumped over Nashville into sixth place by shutting down the struggling Panthers. Brent Seabrook, Viktor Stahlberg, Patrick Kane and Tomas Kopecky scored, and the Hawks limited Florida to 23 shots. Chicago has two days off before Anaheim comes to the United Center on Saturday night.

Los Angeles (88 points)
will have Oscar Moller in the lineup when San Jose comes to the Staples Center on Thursday. With Justin Williams sidelined due to a shoulder injury, the 22-year-old second-round pick in 2007 will get his biggest chance to prove he can be a top-six forward. He'll play on the top line with Anze Kopitar and Dustin Penner.

Nashville (88 points) will try for its fifth consecutive win when Anaheim comes to Bridgestone Arena on Thursday. The Preds have an almost-idea schedule the rest of the way; they play every other day until ending the season with their lone remaining back-to-back -- April 8 at home against Columbus and April 9 at St. Louis.

Anaheim (87 points after Wednesday's 4-3 OT win at Dallas) was less than 10 seconds way from leaving American Airlines Center empty-handed. But Teemu Selanne smacked home a loose puck with 5.4 seconds left to force overtime and Cam Fowler finished off a 2-on-1 break 1:42 into OT to give the Ducks another stunning victory. Anaheim stayed in Dallas before flying to Nashville on Thursday morning for a game against the Predators Thursday night.

On the outside looking in:

Dallas (86 points after Wednesday's 4-3 home OT loss to Anaheim) looked like it was headed for a big win and re-entry into the top eight in the West, only to have to settle for just one point when it couldn't close the deal in regulation and wound up losing in overtime. The Stars have nine games remaining -- but seven of them, including the next five, are away from home.

Calgary (85 points after Wednesday's 6-3 loss at San Jose) is in big trouble. The Flames went 0-1-2 on a swing through California and are just 1-4-2 in their last seven games. They surrendered four first-period goals to the surging Sharks, fell two points out of eighth place -- and have just six games remaining, the fewest among any of the contenders.
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