VANCOUVER - Clinching a spot in the playoffs remains the prime objective, but as the Vancouver Canucks head out on an important three-game road trip the team hasn't given up on the thought of finishing first in the Northwest Division.
Vancouver plays the Calgary Flames Tuesday, the Colorado Avalanche Wednesday and then the division-leading Minnesota Wild Friday. If the Canucks can pick up nine points in their remaining seven games that pretty much secures them a playoff spot no matter what the other teams around them do.
"We're not out of the woods yet," centre Brendan Morrison said after the Canucks practised Monday at GM Place. "I like our position.
"We control where we end up. That's what you want to have. You don't want to have your fate in other team's hands. That's what I like about our position."
Heading into Monday night the Canucks were seventh in the Western Conference with 86 points from a 38-27-10 record. That left them two points ahead of Colorado, who held the eighth and final playoff spot, and a pair back of Calgary.
Minnesota led the division with 89 points.
Centre Ryan Kesler said the Canucks can still catch the Wild and repeat as division champions.
"We have a shot," said Kesler, who is third on the Canucks with 20 goals. "We need some help from some other teams."
Morrison, who is back in the lineup after missing 38 games with a wrist injury, agreed.
"It's very realistic," he said. "We play them head-to-head. We can close the gap that way."
While the Canucks eye the possibility of finishing third in the division, they can't lose sight of missing the playoffs all together. Heading into Monday night, only four points separated them from ninth-place Nashville and five from 10th-place Edmonton.
Goaltender Roberto Luongo said it's hard not to watch the scoreboard every night.
"You don't know who to root for," he said. "You just have to make sure when it's your turn, you take care of business. That's the easiest way for us to get it done.
"If we don't get our games won when we play, it's going to be hard to win the division."
There is another variable that could have an impact the Canucks' playoff equation. Luongo's wife Gina is due to give birth to the couple's first child back in Florida during the first week of April.
The Canucks are scheduled to wrap up the regular season that week with home games against Colorado, Edmonton and Calgary.
Coach Alain Vigneault said the club has already made plans if Luongo is suddenly called away.
"We've got different scenarios laid out," said Vigneault, although he refused to be specific. "I think his focus right now is on Calgary and the next game."
Luongo said he's trying to concentrate on hockey, not the difficult decision he could face if both the team and his family needs him.
"There are a million different scenarios that can happen," he said. "I can't start worrying about everything that could happen. You just hope everything will work out well."
Morrison, a father of three, said it's a no-brainer that Luongo should be on hand for the birth of his child.
"You have to put your family first," said Morrison. "That's the way it is.
"Hopefully we can get some wins here, get that cushion, so he can take a leave of absence and have some peace of mind."
The Canucks play Calgary three times before the season ends, Colorado twice and finish their season series against the Wild Friday.
This season Vancouver is 4-1 against the Flames, 2-3-1 when playing the Avalanche and 3-3-1 against Minnesota.
Defenceman Willie Mitchell said Calgary is a better team now than when the teams last met in December. Heading into Monday, Flame captain Jarome Iginla was third in the NHL with 48 goals while goaltender Miikka Kiprusoff was third with 37 wins.
"They are a big physical team," said Mitchell, who has been playing with a face shield to protect teeth loosened after being hit in the face with a puck in a March 15 game against Dallas. "They compete hard.
"Earlier in the year Kiprusoff wasn't totally on his game. I think he's on his game now. They are a much different team than we played earlier in the year."