VANCOUVER - The Vancouver Canucks know they are walking a tightrope for the rest of the NHL season.
One slip in the tight Western Conference standings can send a team tumbling out of the playoffs. Heading into Tuesday night's action only five points separated the second-place team from the eighth and final playoff spot.
The close race leaves little room for error. With the NHL awarding a point for an overtime or shootout loss, it's hard for teams to get separation from each other.
"It's been like that the whole season," shrugged Daniel Sedin, Vancouver's leading scorer. "It's tight. You have to win every game.
"It's a playoff atmosphere. It's a lot of fun."
Veteran Trevor Linden said the Canucks can't spend energy worrying about what other teams are doing.
"I don't think we got too caught up in the fact we were in first place for a while, or too caught up we were close to being out of a playoff spot," he said. "We know our performance is most important and we have to be consistent in that."
Vancouver fell to 26-20-5 following a 4-3 loss to the Dallas Stars on Tuesday night.
Forward Ryan Kesler said the Canucks must win games against their Northwest Division rivals if they hope to be playing in April.
"If we are going to win the division we are going to have to play some pretty solid hockey and win key games," he said. "We are going to have to have to win games 2-1 and 1-0."
The Canucks don't have the firepower to overwhelm opponents. Their strength is playing a strong defensive game. To win, Vancouver needs to grind out a goal, limit the other team's chances, then rely on goaltender Roberto Luongo to make some big saves.
Getting away from that formula cost Vancouver some games before the all-star break, said defenceman Mattias Ohlund.
"We thought we got away from our identity," said Ohlund. "We're not going to be the highest-scoring team in the league.
"If we try to press too hard to create offence we are going to sacrifice our defence. I don't think that's the way we should play. Hopefully we can turn that around and start playing better defence and then we will be fine."
The Canucks' fate will probably rest in the hands of their goaltender. Luongo skipped the all-star game - and missed the first game after the break - to spent time with his pregnant wife in Florida. It's unlikely he'll see much rest for the reminder of the season.
"Roberto is our key player," agreed Ohlund.
But Kesler said the team can't rely on Luongo to win every game.
"I don't think we can put that much pressure on him," said Kesler. "I think that's unfair to him. Everybody has to be good for us to string a couple of wins together.
"I think everyone is confident in here we have scoring ability."
The Canucks have 31 games remaining. They begin a four-game road swing Thursday in Tampa Bay, then play Friday against the Florida Panthers, have a rematch Tuesday in Dallas, then end the trip in Atlanta.
Coach Alain Vigneault said some of his players must ratchet up their game.
"Some of our players have been good," he said. "Some other guys, since the beginning of the year, have been OK and there are some that have underachieved.
"To get to the dance everyone has to achieve. We know what's at stake now."
The Canucks are waiting to get some of their best players back from injury.
On defence, Willie Mitchell is out indefinitely with a fractured vertebrae in his back while Lukas Krajicek is nursing a sore shoulder but could return during the road trip. Fellow blue-liner Kevin Bieksa, sidelined since Nov. 1 with a lacerated calf, is expected to skate for the first time Friday.
Centre Brendan Morrison, out since Dec. 12 after undergoing wrist surgery, is expected to return before the playoffs.
Linden said the stress of holding onto a playoff spot is offset by the fact the season is moving into its final quarter.
"It's probably less of a grind now," he said. "You can get focused in. The dog days are going to be behind us soon.
"There is a stretch in the middle where you can't really see the end and the start was a long time ago. Anybody that has played the game a long time knows February goes by very quickly and March is going to be a lot of fun, given the standings."