Teams in tight race for playoff spot

With less than a month remaining in the NHL season, the race for the final playoff berths in the Western Conference is tightening up.

As of mid-March only the San Jose Sharks and Chicago Blackhawks are on the verge of securing postseason spots. Barring late-season slumps, the Vancouver Canucks, Phoenix Coyotes and Los Angeles Kings seem ensconced among the top five seeds in the Conference.

But heading into this week, only seven points separated sixth from ninth overall, as the Colorado Avalanche, Nashville Predators, Calgary Flames and Detroit Red Wings jockey for the three remaining postseason berths.

In the first two weeks of March, the Avalanche (4-3) and Predators (5-3) struggled at times with their consistency.

Predators head coach Barry Trotz called a team meeting following an 8-5 loss to the Sharks last week to calm his players’ nerves while calling on everyone to contribute if they’re to secure a playoff berth. Strong goaltending and team defense has long been the Predators hallmark but they’ll sink or swim on their offensive game, which has struggled since the Olympic break, especially leading goal-scorer Patric Hornqvist, who had only three goals in the Predators’ first eight games in March.

The Avalanche are in pursuit of the Canucks for first in the Northwest and the third overall seed in the Conference but are also only a handful of points from ninth overall and cannot afford a letdown. Goaltender Craig Anderson has been the main reason the Avs find themselves closing in on a playoff berth and he understands the pressure will be strongest upon him to carry the team down the stretch.

Should the Avalanche and Predators hang onto their respective positions in the standings, the final playoff spot in the West could come down to a battle between the Flames and Red Wings.

Heading into mid-March, both clubs have swapped that berth twice and with less than 15 games remaining in their respective schedules, it could change hands again down the stretch.

After dropping their first game back from the Olympic break, the Flames were red hot, winning four straight — including a 4-2 victory over the Red Wings — before falling to Vancouver 3-1 this past Sunday.

Calgary’s improvement was due to a combination of terrific goaltending from Miikka Kiprusoff, their strong defense, team captain Jarome Iginla stepping up offensively and recent additions like Matt Stajan and Ian White meshing with their new teammates.

Detroit’s roster had been decimated by injuries this season, but now their lineup is healthy at the right time, resulting in the Wings winning four of their last five heading into this week.

The return in recent weeks of key players Johan Franzen, Valtteri Filppula, Tomas Holmstrom, Niklas Kronwall and Andreas Lilja have provided the Red Wings with a much-needed boost of veteran skill and experience, which will be crucial to their playoff hopes.

Every game now is a “must-win” for these two teams so expect them to be in playoff mindset for the remainder of the season.

Meanwhile, the St. Louis Blues, Minnesota Wild and Dallas Stars sit only a handful of points out of eighth but appear to be heading in different directions.

Having won four of their first six games this month, the Blues aren’t giving up on their playoff hopes while the Stars, who’ve won only once in their first seven games in March, appear to be fading.

With a 3-2-2 record since the Olympic break, the Wild must play better than .500 hockey or they can forget about closing the gap on a playoff spot.

Neither club can afford to lose any ground in the standings if they hope to challenge the Flames and Red Wings.

As for the Anaheim Ducks, five straight losses, which included blowing a 3-0 lead to fall 4-3 in overtime to the Montreal Canadiens, have their playoff hopes hanging by a thread. They’ll have to win almost all of their remaining 15 games to have a realistic chance of squeaking into the playoffs.