It may only be December, but the Vancouver Canucks' playoff chances could be decided in the next seven games.
The ninth-place Canucks are one point out of the playoffs and need to take advantage of a season-high eight-game homestand if they are to have any chance of seeing the postseason.
"We don't have a choice right now," said defenceman Shane O'Brien after yesterday's practice. "We know what the standings are, we know where we sit.
"Our February is the worst in NHL history for travel and days on the road. We need as many points as we can get."
The Canucks took the first step with 4-2 win at home over Atlanta on Thursday, but they feel they'll have to almost run the table before leaving GM Place to play Calgary on Dec. 27.
The Canucks don't see home ice from Jan. 28 to March 12 because of the 2010 Winter Olympics. The homestand of evenly spaced games is the trade-off for playing eight on the road before the Olympics and six more once the Games end.
Still, there's reason to be optimistic. Only three Western Conference teams have scored more goals than the Canucks and just three have allowed fewer.
"There were a lot of expectations placed on us earlier in the year and good on us as an organization to have those," said defenceman Willie Mitchell.
"Now as players we have to learn to play with those expectations.
"Part of the journey to get to the ultimate prize of winning a Stanley Cup is learning how to play with that … play when you're supposed to beat teams."
Four of the remaining seven games in the homestand are against teams below Vancouver in the conference standing.
That includes the Wild, who have won six of their past seven starts but are 0-2 against the Canucks this season and will be playing the last of a five-game trip tonight.
"We look at it as an excellent opportunity," Mitchell said. "You have to.
"But if you don't take care of this homestand, we're not going to be in a very good situation."
The Canucks are 11-4 at GM Place, the second-best home record in the conference behind the Chicago Blackhawks.
Their power play is also second in the West but the penalty kill has been an Achilles heel at 77.5 per cent, 14th out of the 15 conference teams.
Mitchell, one of the Canucks' best penalty killers, said the key to improvement is buying time when there's a breakdown by protecting the middle of the ice rather than chasing the puck.
"We're real good for two minutes but we're real bad for five or 10 seconds," he said.
"When there's a breakdown what you want to do is give them the least percentage play and not run over to where the puck is."
Henrik Sedin, a surprising third in the scoring race despite playing without brother Daniel for 18 games while his identical twin recovered from a broken bone in his foot, said the ultimate goal would be an 8-0 homestand.
"But if we can climb in the standings and get into a playoff position, that's going to be huge for us," said Sedin who has 14 goals and 38 points, four behind San Jose's Joe Thornton.
"If that's being 6-2 or 7-1 that's nothing we can control. We can only control how we're playing so that's the way we have to handle it."
O'Brien said his teammates shouldn't feel pressure during the stretch of must-win games because most are veterans used to playing in Vancouver's intense hockey market.
"The pressure doesn't really get to them, we're playing for each other," said O'Brien, who has been praised by coach Alain Vigneault for better decisions with the puck and for physical play without taking bad penalties.
"There's no pressure. It's a game, you're supposed to have fun and there's no more fun than winning."
Sedin said good practices will be a key to winning in December.
"That's where you get the habits you need in a game," he said.
The intensity of yesterday's practice was ramped up when Mitchell and centre Ryan Kesler tussled and exchanged words at the bench.
The dust-up came after a drill where forwards were trying to gain position in front of the net and defencemen were trying to prevent it.
Neither would comment after.
"Internal," said Kesler, who was quickly separated from Mitchell by teammates.
Vigneault said altercations like that happen in a contact sport, even with teammates.
"I'm sure they've all kissed and made up now."