VANCOUVER (CP) - Finding some elbow room in the tight Northwest Division of the NHL is like battling for space with an elephant in a phone booth.
It's pretty crowded.
The Vancouver Canucks will need a win over the Calgary Flames in Saturday night's game at the Pengrowth Saddledome (10 p.m. ET) if they hope to remain first in the packed division. The Canucks then play the Oilers, another division rival, in Edmonton on Tuesday.
The Canucks have won 12 of their last 16 games, but held just a two-point lead over the Flames and Minnesota Wild heading into Friday's games. With the Flames playing the Columbus Blue Jackets Friday night, the Canucks know it will be hard to gain any ground in the standings.
"It's tough to get any gap because a lot of teams are playing well in our division," captain Markus Naslund said after practice Friday. "That's why it's crucial to keep this thing going."
The Canucks 29-19-4 record leaves them with 62 points. Only eight points separate first from last in the division.
Being first in the division is important because it gives a team the third seed in the Western Conference. Drop out of first place and a club quickly tumbles down into eighth or ninth place.
Veteran Canuck Trevor Linden said that Vancouver has to concentrate on the present, not worry about any future playoff positions.
"At this point it's too early to think about that," said Linden. "We want to be focused on the game we are playing. We won't be talking about breathing room until April, maybe, and hopefully it's in our favour."
Vancouver has enjoyed recent success against Calgary. The Canucks have won the last four games against the Flames, outscoring them 15-9. Two of those games were in Calgary.
"Guys are going to have the confidence we can win there," said Canuck goaltender Roberto Luongo. "We are going to have to work hard and play the same type of games we've played there to be successful. It's going to be a tough game, but we know we can pull it off."
The Canucks beat the Flames 3-1 back on Boxing Day. That snapped a three-game Vancouver losing streak and started the Canucks on a seven-game winning spree.
"We started playing pretty well at that time," said Linden. "It does give us a little bit of confidence heading back in there."
"Having said that, they are a good team. It will probably be a game for first place in the Northwest Division. These games keep getting bigger."
The Flames are expected to have captain and leading scorer Jarome Iginla back in the lineup after missing nearly a month with a sprained knee.
"He is a huge part of their team," said Vancouver coach Alain Vigneault. "The games we have played against him we've had some success and done a decent job defensively against him."
"Those top performers, you have to expect they are going to get chances and shots. That's why they are elite players."
The Canucks will also face Craig Conroy for the first time since Calgary acquired him Monday in a trade with Los Angeles.
Vancouver has scored just 136 goals this season. Only four other teams have scored least.
One of the reasons Vancouver has stayed in the playoff hunt has been the remarkable goaltending of Luongo.
Another thing the Canucks have done well is kill penalties. Vancouver's penalty killing is ranked at 88.8 per cent, best in the league.
"The biggest key is everyone knows exactly what they are supposed to do," said defenceman Mattias Ohlund.
"When things are going well, you don't have to think too much. You just react."