Matthew Tkachuk doesn’t need to be reminded of the Pacific Division’s razor-thin margins.
And if he did, the Calgary Flames winger wouldn’t have to go far.
“There’s standings posted in our locker room, there’s (stat) sheets out,” Tkachuk said. “It’s hard to miss it even if you’re not trying to look for it.
“I see it all the time.”
In truth, it’s staring everyone in the face.
With between 30 and 33 games left on the schedule coming out of the NHL all-star break, five teams in the Pacific Division are separated by a single point atop the ledger — the latest this many clubs have ever been this close this late in a season.
Pacific Division Standings
The Vancouver Canucks are in the driver’s seat, albeit precariously, with 58 points through 49 contests. The Edmonton Oilers are next with 57 points through 49 outings, while Tkachuk’s Flames have the same number through 50 games.
Hot on the heels of the three Canadian franchises are the Arizona Coyotes (57 points in 51 games) and the Vegas Golden Knights (57 points in 52 games), who currently occupy both wild-card spots in the Western Conference.
“It’s crazy,” Canucks centre Brandon Sutter said. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen that before. It’s going to be tight all the way down the stretch. It’s definitely one of the deeper divisions in the league now. Obviously, there is some high-end players throughout.
“It’s going to be a dogfight right to the end.”
The Oilers missed the playoffs the last two springs, and have qualified for the post-season just twice in the last 14 years, but with the NHL’s two leading scorers in Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl shouldering a heavy load, the franchise appears primed for a return to the spring dance.
“We have put ourselves in a position to be a part of it,” Edmonton head coach Dave Tippett said. “Now we have to jump in with both feet and see what we can do.”
The Oilers were just 5-8-1 in December to slide down the standings, but are 5-1-1 in January coming off their bye week and all-star break.
“You want to see more of what’s been going on the last couple of weeks,” McDavid said. “December was a month that got away from us, and we seem to have found it again a little bit here in the new year. We need to keep that going.”
Battle of Alberta
Another layer to the Pacific race is the renewed tensions in the Battle of Alberta stemming from a heated Jan. 11 encounter where Tkachuk levelled Zack Kassian with two huge hits. That prompted Kassian to jump Tkachuk and earn himself a two-game suspension.
The Oilers and Flames play twice this week — Wednesday in Edmonton when Kassian is eligible to return to the lineup and again three nights later in Calgary.
“Every game right now is kind of a must-win,” Flames centre Sean Monahan said. “It’s so tight.”
Vancouver, meanwhile, has missed the playoffs four years running, and five of the last six, but there’s renewed belief in a roster led by the young trio of Elias Pettersson, Brock Boeser and Quinn Hughes.
“Teams in our conference are big and strong,” Canucks winger Jake Virtanen said. “We can’t let off the gas.”
And then there’s the Winnipeg Jets, a club that’s lost six of its last seven in regulation, but also one that remains in the hunt in both the Central Division and wild-card races with 54 points from 51 games.
“I think the one thing that we have going for us in this conference is we’ve been kind of grinding and fighting all year to stay in the fight in these games,” Jets defenceman Josh Morrissey said. “We’re comfortable in that situation.
“We’re used to it and we’ve had success doing that.”
Calgary finished tied for second in the NHL’s overall standings last season with 107 points, only to find itself stuck in neutral when the playoffs started before getting upset by the Colorado Avalanche in five games.
Tkachuk said being in this Pacific Division fight should be good for the Flames — as long as they qualify for the post-season dance.
“Playoffs start now,” he said. “You better hope you’re peaking now, because you want to get in. This is a very important time for our team in particular to take that next step and be playing playoff hockey going into the playoffs.”
— With files from Shane Jones in Edmonton, Jim Morris in Vancouver and Judy Owen in Winnipeg.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 26, 2020.
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Joshua Clipperton, The Canadian Press