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One point ahead of Nashville, Canucks' playoff hopes on shaky ground

VANCOUVER - The Vancouver Canucks have a shaky grasp on their own playoff destiny.

Vancouver holds a slim one-point lead over the Nashville Predators in the race for the final playoff spot in the NHL's tight Western Conference. Both teams enter the final week of the regular season with three games remaining.

The Canucks can assure themselves a spot in the playoffs by winning their final games, all of which will be played at GM Place.

"We have to be confident," said forward Daniel Sedin, one of a handful of Canucks who practised Monday. "We have to look forward to the last three games, play them like playoff games. If we do that we'll be fine."

But instead of focusing on who is chasing them, the Canucks still have visions of overtaking the Calgary Flames and Colorado Avalanche, teams that are ahead of them in the standings.

"It's funny how one point makes a difference," said forward Ryan Shannon. "We're in the playoffs right now.

"When you're in that situation you kind of look at the teams that are ahead of you to try and catch them. If we were out of it, we'd have to nip at the heels of someone else. Now it's trying to create a gap between the team that is behind us and get in front of the team that is ahead of us."

The Canucks broke a season-long, four-game losing streak with a crucial 6-2 win over the Calgary Flames Sunday night. Vancouver will play Colorado Tuesday night, the charging Edmonton Oilers Thursday, then wrap up the season against Calgary Saturday.

Vancouver has 88 points from a 39-30-10 record. That leaves the Canucks a point ahead of Nashville and two in front of Edmonton.

The Canucks trail Calgary by two points and are just three behind Colorado.

Going down the stretch, the Predators have the easier schedule even though two of their games are on the road. They play in St. Louis Tuesday, face the Blues back in Nashville on Thursday, and end the season Friday in Chicago.

The Oilers play in Calgary Tuesday before finishing against the Canucks at GM Place.

Sunday's win against the Flames was a huge confidence boost for the Canucks, who staggered home from a three-game road trip with losses in Calgary, Colorado and Minnesota.

Sedin said it's important the Canucks keep an even keel.

"If you look at the three games before, everyone said we were terrible and we didn't work hard enough," he said. "I think we weren't that far off from playing good.

"After yesterday, everybody thinks we played a great game but I don't think we played our best."

Vancouver faces a big challenge against the Avalanche. The Canucks have a 2-4-1 record against Colorado and were beaten 6-3 in their last meeting.

"They have a lot of skill," said coach Alain Vigneault. "Their defence is involved in the attack. It makes it hard to defend. They have been able to, in different games, get a five to 10-minute span where we get in trouble and they made us pay for it."

Sedin said the Canucks can't afford to take penalties against the Avs.

"The last game against them we took a lot of bad penalties," he said. "That's been a problem for us lately."

The Canucks are going to need their best players to step forward if they hope to extend their season. Sedin leads the team with 29 goals this year. He has two goals in the club's last five games but just three in their last 19.

Captain Markus Naslund scored against Calgary but has just three goals in his last 19 games.

Goaltender Roberto Luongo made 27 saves against the Flames. That came after he was pulled in back-to-back losses to Minnesota and Colorado.

The last week was an emotional roller-coaster for Luongo. He left the team Thursday morning in Denver, flew to Florida to be with his wife for the birth of their first child, then returned to Minnesota in time for Friday night's game against the Wild.

"The last couple of weeks for him must have been a little tough mentally," said Vigneault. "Now he can focus on making sure he is energized and can play."

The Canucks will play the reminder of the season without centre Brendan Morrison (knee), plus defencemen Mattias Ohlund (knee) and Lukas Krajicek (shoulder). Defenceman Aaron Miller is also out indefinitely with a shoulder injury.

The injuries on defence have put a lot of pressure on veteran Sami Salo, Kevin Bieska, who missed a large portion of the season after his calf was slashed, and rookie Alex Edler.

Playing with the home-ice last change will allow the Canuck coaches to get the defensive units they want into the game.

"We can spread the minutes a little bit better and our guys don't get caught out there tired as much as sometimes when we don't have a last change on the road," said Vigneault.

The coach also plans to keep his practices optional for the rest of the reason, allowing players to rest between games.

"In my mind, I probably should have started this earlier," he said.


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