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Still a five-team race for Pacific Division title

by Jerry Brown
GLENDALE, Ariz. -- When the season began, every team in the Pacific Division went to training camp with the same goal -- win the division, or at least make the playoffs in the ultra-competitive Western Conference, where 14 of the 15 teams still hold legitimate postseason aspirations.

"It's probably, top to bottom the strongest division out there," said Phoenix center Eric Belanger, a Pacific Division aficionado who played his first five NHL season with the Los Angeles Kings before returning to the division this season with the Coyotes. "And when you play those teams all six times, good teams can really beat on each other. They are the games you circle because they mean so much. And if you lose three or four in a row, it feels like 10 games."

Two-thirds of the way through the season, while each team has endured injuries, trials and tribulations, they all have their preseason goals still intact. The only question is, will they all have a chair when the music stops:

* The Anaheim Ducks were winless in six straight in November and then lost captain Ryan Getzlaf on Dec. 28 when he was hit in the face by a shot off the stick of Phoenix's Shane Doan. He'll finally return to the lineup Wednesday.

* The Kings lost 10 of 12 games just after Christmas, falling 10 points off the playoff pace and putting their playoff hopes in jeopardy. Questions about coach Terry Murray's job security were raised.

* San Jose, last season's division champ, dropped six straight -- five of them at home -- in early January. They tumbled all the way to the Pacific basement and to 12th place in the West.

* The Sharks finally rebounded, beating the Coyotes on Martin Luther King Day. Phoenix, who had been riding high, suddenly stopped scoring and lost six of the next eight -- blowing a 3-0 second-period lead in San Jose on Feb. 1 to cap the futility.

But now San Jose and Anaheim have won seven of 10. Los Angeles is 6-3-1 in its last 10. And the Coyotes have rebounded with back-to-back shutouts for the first time since Brian Boucher put up five straight shutouts seven years ago.

And, now it's Dallas -- division leaders most of the season -- which suddenly has become falling Stars. Saturday's 3-1 loss in Philadelphia was their fifth in the last six games, and the entire division is getting bigger in the rear-view mirror. Phoenix comes to town Wednesday just two points behind (65-63), with the Sharks (62), Ducks (62) and Kings (60) all within striking distance as Tuesday's play begins

The Stars are third in the West, with the Coyotes, Sharks and Ducks sitting fifth, sixth and seventh, respectively. The Kings are the only playoff outsiders at present, but are ninth, just one point out of eighth.

As tight as things are in the Western Conference, the only way to guarantee a playoff spot is by winning the division. Fourth-place Nashville and 14th-place St. Louis are separated by just nine points, and only seven points separates eighth and 14th. The chance of all five Pacific teams coming away with a piece of the playoff pie is a risky proposition.

"All five teams you think they can make it," Phoenix captain Shane Doan said. "But then you have Vancouver and Detroit, then you look at what Nashville is doing … that fills things up pretty quick. We had 107 points last year, and it wasn't enough to win the division, so you know you can't have any prolonged streaks from here on out.

"A game like this, going to Dallas (Wednesday), that's a lot of fun. Lots on the line, a win has that extra meaning. Those are the games you want to be playing this time of year."
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