Darren Eliot
Monday March 10th, 2008

The Western Conference standings look like the scorecard of a heavyweight title bout that goes the distance, with lots of blows given and taken and no one quite sure what the final decision will be. One thing is for sure, it won't be unanimous.

How could it be unanimous, with three teams in the Pacific Division separated by just four points, and four teams in the ludicrously compacted Northwest Division bunched in a three-point space? The winners (playoff qualifiers) in each are going to be gritty survivors.

In the Pacific, the surging San Jose Sharks overtook the top spot for a few hours over the weekend with their franchise-best ninth straight win only to see the Dallas Stars regain their first place status with a 3-0 blanking of the Colorado Avalanche who had won six consecutive games heading into that one on Sunday.

You get the picture. There are lots of good teams going on major runs out west right now. Seven of the Sharks' nine wins camme on the road, while their Pacific rivals, the Anaheim Ducks, tied their franchise record by reeling off their second seven-game home winning streak of the season. The battle for top spot in the division will likely go right down to the final bell, but consider that the Sharks have three games in hand on Dallas and two on the Ducks. Factor in as well that the Sharks play both the Ducks and Stars twice more, facing each at home and on the road. The Ducks and Stars likewise play each other once more at home and on the road.

Yet, while those three teams slug it out, the action in the Northwest is more urgent because not only is a division title at stake, so to is playoff participation. As the week began, the Minnesota Wild had a one-point lead over the Calgary Flames and the Avs. The Vancouver Canucks sit a mere three points back, but also occupy the eighth and final playoff spot. The Nashville Predators likewise have 78 points, amassing that total in 70 games -- two more than the Canucks. That means any or all of the four teams could win the division and/or make the playoffs.

It also means that, when the body blows subside and the scorecard tallies are in, any one of those four teams could just as easily miss the playoffs entirely. And that's where the intrigue lies over these final few weeks of the schedule. The Wild had a chance to build a cushion, but is 3-5-1 in their last 10 games. At the same time, the Flames and Canucks have posted 6-2-2 marks and the Avs -- largely on the strength of their six-game winning streak -- have closed in by going 7-2-1.

So, I'll be watching the Northwest with great interest between now and April 6. Can the Wild get right and hold off the other three challengers for the division title? Seven of their final 12 tilts are against those teams, so as the saying goes, they control their own destiny.

Then again, the teams in Denver, Calgary and Vancouver have the same outlook.

Head-to-head match-ups hold the intrigue, but the Avs find themselves on a different path this week. They curiously face two Eastern Conference teams, traveling to Atlanta for a one-off road riff on Tuesday before returning home for a Thursday home game with the Edmonton Oilers. On Saturday, the Avs host the other entry from the east, the New Jersey Devils, who are in a dogfight of their own with the Montreal Canadiens. The Devils and Habs meet in Montreal on Tuesday night with one point separating them atop the conference.

At the same time, the Flames embark on a four-game road trip with Southeast stops in Washington on Wednesday and Atlanta on Thursday before hitting the Central with games in Chicago (Sunday) and Columbus (Tuesday). With points so important, both the Avs and Flames will need supreme focus in facing foes they seldom see and with which they have little in common.

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