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Tight playoff races making the West wild

by Phil Coffey
Talk about a wild race to the Stanley Cup Playoffs. The Western Conference is more than obliging hockey fans this season, and Thursday's action was just an appetizer for things to come.

With a 3-0 win in Los Angeles, the Chicago Blackhawks now have moved into a points tie for the conference's top spot alongside the slumping San Jose Sharks. The Hawks get the technical lead based on more victories (45-43). The Hawks and Sharks both have 96 points with 12 games remaining.

There likely will be some changes in that race this weekend. On Friday, the Sharks visit a desperate Flames team trying to get back into the West's top eight. Saturday, the Blackhawks will face the red-hot Coyotes at a sold-out Arena.

"To be honest, I don't think a lot of guys know the exact standings," Blackhawks forward Adam Burish said. "You've got to play good hockey and you've got to win hockey games and lately we haven't done that. We've been finding ways to lose games instead of finding ways to win them.

"The last seven or eight games are the most important games of the year if you're going to make playoffs because that sets the tone of what you're going to do. If the playoffs were tomorrow, I wouldn't feel real good about where we're at right now."

After falling to the Canucks in Vancouver, San Jose now is winless in four straight (0-3-1). The Sharks have dropped the first three of a six-game trip that continues in Calgary Friday.

The Sharks have more problems, too, as the surging Coyotes now are just three points behind them for the Pacific Division lead. The thought that San Jose could be caught in the Pacific seemed far-fetched earlier this season, but with the Sharks' struggles, coupled with the Coyotes' strong showing, has made it a real possibility.

"It's a bump in the road, but I think it's good for us to face adversity," Sharks goalie Evgeni Nabokov said. "I think it will glue us together even more."

Nabokov's optimism will be tested by the Coyotes, who continue to impress, breaking the franchise record for victories in a season Thursday by topping Florida, 4-3 in a shootout, after trailing 3-0.

"It was just one of those games where we never quit," Radim Vrbata said after the Coyotes won their seventh in a row and finished 4-0-0 on their swing through the Southeast. "We came back and it was nice to get that."

With its 44th win of the season, Phoenix eclipsed the old franchise mark held by the 1984-85 Winnipeg Jets, who did not have the benefit of the penalty-shot tiebreaker to settle games still tied after overtime.

And the Canucks, leaders of the Northwest Division, have 91 points and could move into the No. 2 spot in the West at some point. The Canucks rebounded from a lopsided loss to the New York Islanders two nights earlier Thursday with a 3-2 victory against San Jose. The victory was the Canucks' second over the Sharks in 10 games over a three-season span.

"We know it's been a while and we know we've struggled in the past against this team," said the Canucks' Ryan Kesler, who had a goal and an assist. "It's not hard to get up for games like these. That's a pretty good hockey club and a good test for us, and we answered the bell."

After struggling against the Islanders, goalie Roberto Luongo came back with a strong effort to continue the Sharks' misery, stopping 32 shots.

"We wanted to bounce back. We were disappointed with ourselves," Luongo said. "They are on top of the conference and a very good team and we came out, had a solid first period and really set the tempo."

Colorado, Los Angeles and Nashville are the fifth, sixth and seventh seeds and all three are within a point of one another. The Kings are slipping of late, having gone just 3-4-1 since the Olympic break. With the loss to Chicago, the Kings remained at 85 points, the same as the Predators, though Los Angeles is sixth in the West because it has played two fewer games.

The Predators are hot, having won four-straight games after blanking the Wild on Thursday. Nashville is 7-3-0 in its last 10, and goaltender Pekka Rinne was perfect against the Wild, earning his fifth shutout of the season.

There is no rest for the weary in the West. Besides the Sharks-Flames clash tonight, the Detroit Red Wings, holding the eighth seed by a point ahead of Calgary, will play in Edmonton.

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