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Practice Report: Divisional Chatter

by Aaron Lopez / Colorado Avalanche
Much of the discussion around the National Hockey League lately has centered on how tight the playoff picture is shaping up to be yet again this season. One aspect that tends to get overlooked at times is how tight divisional races are (or aren’t) across the league.

Simply put, if you win your division, you guarantee yourself the No. 3 seed in the conference – at worst.

“As you look at the standings right now, anything can change any night. Points are precious,” said defenseman Jordan Leopold. “To win the divisional title is huge, because you guarantee a top spot in the playoffs, but I think it’ll be tight the rest of the way.”

It should come as no surprise to Avalanche fans that the standings in the Northwest Division are a virtual logjam as we near the midway point of the 2008-09 campaign.

After all, a season ago three of the five teams in Colorado’s division (Minnesota, Calgary and the Avs) qualified for the playoffs, while the other two clubs (Vancouver and Edmonton) each finished just three points behind eighth-place Nashville. At the conclusion of the 2007-08 regular season, just 10 points separated division champion Minnesota (98 points) from last place Vancouver (88 points). That differential was by far the smallest among the league’s six divisions, with the Northeast Division coming the closest to matching that number (21 points separating first from last).

“If you look at it historically, I think post-lockout the Northwest has been the toughest division,” said Leopold. “That just creates another challenge. We just have to meet that challenge and hopefully end up on top at the end of the year.”

The Avs will battle another team from the crowded Northwest Division on Sunday when the Minnesota Wild comes to Pepsi Center for a 6:00 p.m. tilt. Peter Budaj will get the starting nod in goal for the Avalanche, which currently sits one point ahead of Minnesota in the standings.

As of Saturday morning, the Northwest is again the tightest division in the NHL from top-to-bottom, with current leader Calgary (48 points) sitting just 11 points ahead of current cellar dweller Edmonton (37). Once again, no other division in the league really comes close to matching that small spread.

“Obviously we look at the standings every day to see where we are and how the other teams have played,” said forward Marek Svatos. “The last game wasn’t the greatest example of how we can play. We have to prepare like every game is the playoffs. You look back to a few years ago when we were out of the playoffs by one point. We have to make sure we’re sharp for every game.”

Below is a look at how the divisional leaders across the league are separated from the teams currently occupying last place.

Division         First Place       Pts      Last Place        Pts     Difference
Northwest     Calgary             48       Edmonton         37       11 pts
Atlantic           Philadelphia    49       NY Islanders    28       21 pts
Southeast     Washington     53       Tampa Bay       30       23 pts
Central          Detroit               55       St. Louis            31       24 pts
Pacific           San Jose          61       Los Angeles     36       25 pts
Northeast     Boston              62       Ottawa                31       31 pts

Willsie Takes Part in Practice
Avalanche forward Brian Willsie finally shed his bright orange non-contact jersey, instead donning a more traditional black practice sweater during Saturday’s skate at Family Sports Center.

Willsie has missed the last 13 games after suffering a knee injury in the first period of Colorado’s 3-2 loss to Nashville on Dec. 4. He is currently listed as day-to-day.

Shattenkirk, Team USA Out of Contention
Avalanche prospect Kevin Shattenkirk, Colorado’s first round pick (14th overall) in the 2007 Entry Draft, is currently competing with Team USA at the 2009 IIHF World Junior Championship in Ottawa. Team USA lost a quarterfinal matchup with Slovakia on Friday by a 5-3 score, meaning the American squad will not medal at the event.

Shattenkirk recorded an assist in yesterday’s contest and has totaled nine points (1g/8a) in five games at the event. Through Friday’s games, the defenseman’s eight assists tied him for both the team lead and second overall in the tournament.

Team USA will conclude play in the event Sunday night in the fifth-place game against the Czech Republic.
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