Stretch drive comes early

ROBERT TYCHKOWSKI -- Edmonton Sun

, Last Updated: 10:00 AM ET

Since when do stretch drives begin in mid-February?

The NHL season is barely past the halfway mark and the tension is already turning stomachs into knots and coaches into nervous wrecks.

With must-win game after must-win game on the schedule and barely a gasp of breathing room in the standings, it's like everyone's in the middle of a three-month playoff series.

"Every game is like a playoff game now," said Teemu Selanne, whose ninth place Ducks are currently on the outside looking in. "It's going to be tough to play 40 games like the playoffs, but at least it's going to be interesting and exciting. It shouldn't be any problem to get up for the games."

WILD COULD CLIMB IN

Heading into last night, just four points separated first and fourth in the Northwest Division, by far the toughest in hockey. Fifth-place Minnesota could climb right back into the mix with a win here Friday.

"We're all looking at the standings every day now," said Vancouver Canucks coach Marc Crawford.

"It's so tight in our division that a good week can move you up and a bad week can put you down."

With 12 of their last 26 games against Vancouver, Calgary, Colorado and Minnesota, and another five against playoff teams Detroit, Dallas, LA and Nashville, the Oilers are well aware that sixth place in the West is anything but comfortable.

"Nobody's out of danger," said Edmonton GM Kevin Lowe, adding everything from first to eighth is up for grabs. "Look at Nashville, they're only a few points ahead of us. We think we could conceivably catch them. At the same time we know the teams behind us could conceivably catch us."

UPPING THE POINTS

The addition of shootouts this year, meaning all ties result in a bonus point for somebody, upping the number of points it'll take to make the top eight. Last season it was 91, this year it'll be close to 100.

"I think 96 will get you in," said Lowe. "We have 67 now so we need 29 more in 26 games."

The difference this year is that the Oilers won't have to dig themselves out of a hole this year, like they've had to so many times in the past.

"We've got something to work with, that's for sure," said Lowe.


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