A strong second half has the Vancouver Canucks primed to rejoin the postseason, but the ultra-competitive Western Conference won’t afford them any comfort the rest of the way.
With a slight cushion in the playoff race, the Canucks face off Saturday night with the Dallas Stars, whose desperate late-season push suffered a near-fatal hit their last time out.
Vancouver (43-27-4) has been one of the league’s best teams since the All-Star break with 17 wins, tied for second-most in the Western Conference, but will still need a strong finish to stay ahead of playoff hopeful Calgary.
The Canucks have as many points (90) as Winnipeg, which holds the second wild-card spot, but are second in the Pacific Division, two points ahead of Los Angeles and three in front of the Flames.
That race grew slightly more competitive with Vancouver’s 4-1 loss to Colorado on Thursday, ending a three-game win streak.
"It’s unacceptable. We knew how important this game was," defenseman Luca Sbisa said. "Every game going down the stretch is going to be like a playoff game. Not showing up is not acceptable. It’s pretty much like our `B’ team showed up.’"
Vancouver has lost only three of its last 10 contests, with each defeat coming at home. That trend bodes well for the Stars (36-29-10), although even a perfect end to the season may not be enough for Dallas following a 4-0 loss to lowly Edmonton on Friday.
The Stars, who had won seven of eight before the defeat, trail the West’s final playoff spot by eight points with only seven games to play.
"That was a tough one; we didn’t play the game we have been playing lately that had made us successful," Shawn Horcoff told the Stars’ official website. "That’s the type of game we have been trying to get away from."
It was a rare off night for a Stars offense that had averaged 3.7 goals over its last three contests and ranked second in the NHL with 3.08 goals per game this season. Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn had combined for 12 points in Dallas’ previous four games.
"I don’t think we played very well," coach Lindy Ruff said. "It started with the first shift, turning the puck over and getting scored against … There were a lot of odd-man situations. We just seemed a step behind."
Kari Lehtonen’s four goals allowed Friday marked his most since Feb. 27. He had posted an 8-1-0 record in his previous 10 starts, which included wins in both ends of a back-to-back March 12-13. Backup Jhonas Enroth owns a 3.28 goals-against average this season, and has not started since March 7.
Eddie Lack figures to be in net for Vancouver. Lack, who is winless in two career starts against the Stars, stopped 27 of 28 shots in a 2-0 loss to Dallas on Dec. 17, and surrendered five goals in defeat March 6, 2014.
Dallas has won six straight against the Canucks, and hasn’t lost in Vancouver since March 30, 2012.