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Tight Western Conference standings have every team dreaming of playoffs @NHLdotcom

There may never have been more believers in the NHL's Western Conference. At least not in February.

Even though the season is nearly two-thirds done, every team in the West still thinks it has a chance to play into the spring. Emotions across the conference have been subject to a yo-yo effect as bubble team after bubble team shoots up the standings while on a hot streak, only to fall back when things cool off.

The one constant has been a tight grouping of teams in the bottom half.

"You look at the standings and nobody's really dropping away from it," Columbus Blue Jackets coach Ken Hitchcock said Monday. "The three or four teams that looked like they were leaking oil maybe two weeks ago have tightened up.

"You come to the realization that you're playing 82 playoff games just to get in to the playoffs."

It's been an amazing thing to chart.

The Dallas Stars were last in the conference before Sean Avery was suspended in December and now are tied for fifth. The Phoenix Coyotes appeared to have hold of a playoff spot as recently as the all-star break, but have fallen to 13th after six straight losses.

Pretty much every team outside of San Jose, Detroit and Chicago has experienced some kind of noticeable rise and fall in the standings. Beyond the elite, it's been a parity free-for-all.

"If you take out the top two teams (San Jose and Detroit), everybody's pretty much the same," said Hitchcock. "There's just so little difference depth-wise. Teams go in cycles too - Chicago was really good early and now Dallas has really jumped up.

"It's just so competitive."

The facts back him up. Only nine points currently separate last-place St. Louis from the fifth-place Stars.

That's actually a positive sign for a Blues team that has weathered a number of serious injuries to key players. They're just six points behind Vancouver for the eighth and final playoff spot, but realize they have a big mountain to climb over the final 30 games.

"Even though the number of points we're out isn't a huge hurdle, the number of teams you have to climb over (might be)," said Doug Armstrong, the Blues vice-president of player personnel. "But the guys have really battled hard and (coach) Andy Murray has done a hell of a job.

"We're certainly not giving up hope."

Armstrong has spent roughly two decades as an executive in the NHL and believes that the additional point given to overtime and shootout losers is the main reason why so many Western teams remain in contention.

Not that he's complaining. Armstrong figures it's good for the league to have so many markets locked into a playoff race over the final month or two of the season.

With a healthy lead atop the Northwest Division, Calgary is one of the few teams that isn't constantly looking over its shoulder. However, that hasn't kept coach Mike Keenan from noticing how tight things are below them.

"It's an interesting league, isn't it?" Keenan said over the weekend. "If you look at the standings, I would probably guess three, maybe four teams in the East are out of the playoff hunt and in the West I don't believe there's anyone out.

"Rest assured, the NHL will be very entertaining for the remainder of the season, particularly in the West."

Some of the biggest interest will come from playoff-starved markets: Hitchcock's Blue Jackets haven't qualified since entering the league in 2000; Phoenix has made it just once in the past seven seasons; Los Angeles is stuck in a six-year drought; and St. Louis hasn't qualified since having a 25-year streak of consecutive appearances end in 2006.

Given that collective futility, it's quite remarkable that so much hope exists now.

Los Angeles, in particular, has been making a move over the past couple weeks. Playing with one of the youngest rosters in the league, the Kings have reeled off six victories in seven games and sit three points behind the Canucks with a game in hand.

They certainly believe.

"We've had our struggles, we've had our ups and downs," said rookie goalie Jonathan Quick, who was named the league's first star on Monday. "You look at the standings and following how the other teams are doing each night. You win a few games, you jump up a few spots; you lose a couple, you fall down.

"It's an exciting time. There's still a lot of hockey to be played. I believe we're a playoff team and I know the guys on my team believe that too."

Like everyone else in the West, the time to show it is now.

Games are only going to tighten up and get more competitive as the end of the season nears. That will be especially true this season as long as this many teams remain in the hunt.

"You've pretty much got to max out to win games," said Hitchcock. "You're not going to get away with playing 80 per cent and win a hockey game anymore. Nobody is.

"I think all of us realize that."

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