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Northwest Notes: Ehrhoff's a big plus

by Roger Phillips / Vancouver Canucks
A big plus -- As a member of the Sharks last season, defenseman Christian Ehrhoff had a minus-12 rating, not easy to do when you're playing for the team that won the Presidents' Trophy. This year, playing for the inconsistent Canucks after being acquired by Vancouver in the off-season, Ehrhoff has turned his plus-minus around.

Ehrhoff is averaging nearly 22 minutes of ice time and is the Canucks' leading scorer from the blue line. At 27, he's assumed the rushing defenseman role that once belonged to now-departed veteran Mattias Ohlund.

Though the Sharks are back atop the League standings without him, they still miss Ehrhoff, who was unloaded to create salary-cap room before San Jose's acquisition of Dany Heatley.

"Losing Christian has affected our team, he was a real professional, a joy to be around, we miss him," Sharks coach Todd McLellan told the Vancouver Province last week when San Jose visited the Canucks. "It's nice to see him having success in Vancouver."

Sharks defenseman Dan Boyle shrugged off Ehrhoff's poor plus-minus last year. Of his former defense partner, he told the Province, "Plus/minus, I don't love that statistic. I don't think it really tells you what's going on there. Christian is a good hockey player."

Ehrhoff said he's feeling increasingly comfortable in his new surroundings.

"You move to a new team, new city, you have to adjust to everything," he told the Province. "But it seems so long ago now that I played with the Sharks."

Sinking into deep hole --This is how you know a team is sinking deeper and deeper into what may be an insurmountable hole.

On a Friday night at home, it blows a two-goal, third-period lead to the NHL's best team, then goes back in front, then again blows the lead -- by allowing a shorthanded goal, no less. In the shootout, the dismal night ends in defeat.

Twenty-four hours later, it gets even worse. In less than nine minutes, the team is in a 4-0 hole against a division rival. It degenerates into a 7-3 setback.

After that loss at Vancouver, the Edmonton Oilers had only four wins in their previous 15 games. They had sunk near the bottom of the Western Conference standings and had lost star forward Ales Hemsky to a season-ending injury. Goalie Nikolai Khabibulin, as well as forwards Sam Gagner and Shawn Horcoff, also are banged up.

As if matters could be worse, the loss at Vancouver came in the opener of a grueling six-game road trip. The Oilers had only a 2-8-2 road record entering Thursday night's game at Detroit.

If there's any good news for Edmonton, it's that if the Oilers pull themselves together, it's not too late to make a playoff run. But they better do it soon.

This isn't exactly what first-year coach Pat Quinn signed up for. But he says the team must find a way to persevere.

"You have to somehow suck it up and keep going," Quinn told the Edmonton Journal. "This team's recent history hasn't been so great that they didn't know the whole job was going to be tough. It was going to be tough to start becoming a team that's worthy of making the playoffs. Well guess what? If we buck up and respond and get individually, then collectively better, it's going to be worth it.

"The destination hasn't changed. Maybe the plans because of the different players we have ... but our big job is to get some of these young guys better every day."
On the other hand -- What may make the Oilers' struggles all the more galling is that just a swift ride down the road, fans in Calgary are enjoying the rise of the Flames.

Actually, the fans have been enjoying it from afar. Monday's 5-0 rout of the Predators improved the Flames to 3-0 on their current six-game trip. The trip resumed Thursday night in Phoenix, and then there will be a very big test -- a visit to San Jose on Saturday followed by a trip-ending game at Los Angeles on Monday.

The Flames entered the Phoenix game with a League-best 10-1-3 road record, and had tied a club record with points in 10 consecutive road games. The Flames earned 22 of a possible 28 points in November, going 10-2-2.

A big key to their success has been getting the early jump on their opponents. The Flames scored first in 21 of their first 25 games. Health also has been on Calgary's side. Aside from recent injuries to Cory Sarich and Rene Bourque, the team is relatively fit.

It was only a few weeks ago that things seemed as if they might turn in a southward direction for the Flames. A 7-1 home loss to the Blackhawks on Nov. 19 left Calgary with only one win in a four-game stretch. But it also was a wake-up call.

"It's been a focus of our team since that Chicago game," defenseman Adam Pardy told the Calgary Sun. "This road trip is a learning experience and a way to get better. We're shutting teams down in the middle of the rink."

Never was that more the case than in Monday's win at Nashville.

"We stuck with our game plan the whole way through," right wing David Moss told the Sun. "You do those little things through and through and it wears the other team down."
Also traveling -- Is anyone home in the Northwest Division?

Like the Oilers and Flames, the Avalanche are on the road for an extended period.

A five-game trip began Monday night with a 3-0 victory at Tampa Bay. It was a badly needed win, considering the Avalanche had won only two of its previous 10 games. Colorado dropped a 6-5 decision Wednesday at Florida, but the game went to the shootout so the Avalanche earned a point.

Injuries have been mounting. Defenseman Kyle Cumiskey has been sidelined with a foot injury and right wing Milan Hejduk has an injured knee. Worst of all, young and rising winger David Jones has been lost, quite likely for the season, to a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee. Jones had 10 goals, second on the team to Hejduk.

"It's certainly a blow to our team," coach Joe Sacco told the Denver Post when asked about the loss of Jones. "I think David's part of that identity I talked about at the start of the year. He's a fast, young player who plays with lots of energy. He was off to a good start, and obviously he was helping our team tremendously."

Though some of his players need crutches these days, Sacco said the team can't use the injuries as a crutch as they try to stay on course following their fast start.

"If you look around the League, this is happening everywhere," Sacco told the Post. "Every team is dealing with injuries, whether it's to role players or star players. The only way we deal with it is try to rally around it and make sure we get other players to step up and raise their level of play."
Don't tread on me -- The Wild have been in the basement of the Northwest Division much of the season. But at least the team is taking better care of its logo.

Under first-year coach Todd Richards, the Wild have added a piece of carpet on the floor in the dressing room to keep players from stepping on the logo. Coming next could be a team policy of fining players if they tread on the logo.

Richards played college hockey at the University of Minnesota. He told the St. Paul Pioneer Press that players there were fined if they inadvertently stepped on the Gophers' logo.

"Take pride in it and respect it," Richards said of the logo in an interview with the newspaper.
The team will cover the logo on non-game days, and open it on game days.

Some players told the Pioneer Press they have always avoided walking on the logo.

"I've never stepped on it," forward Eric Belanger said. "I have my own rule; I don't think you should step on it."
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