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Northwest offering inconsistent play so far

by Roger Phillips / Vancouver Canucks
If there's a single thing that could be said about the Northwest Division teams during the first month of the season, it's that they were consistently inconsistent.

The Flames looked lost early, but seemed to have found themselves despite Tuesday night's loss to Phoenix. The Wild were the last team in the League to suffer a regulation loss, then suffered a pair in a 24-hour span. The Canucks and Avalanche have had similar stories to tell.

But perhaps no team has been as up and down as the Oilers, who right now are in the midst of a pivotal 7-game road trip.

The Oilers came flying out of the gate with 4-consecutive wins. But they followed that with 5 dismal losses in a row, 1 of those in overtime.

The fifth of those losses came at Nashville in the opener of the current road marathon. And not surprisingly, the Oilers were viewing this trip as possibly a make-or-break journey, even though we're less than a quarter of the way through the season.

"There are 2 storylines on this road trip, 3 if you count mediocrity," Oilers coach Craig MacTavish told the Edmonton Sun. "It could be a terrific bonding time for the team to go out and have a great time on the road. Or it could be an absolute debacle.

"If we continue to play the way we're playing, we could have trouble winning. We're good enough now in my mind that we are in charge of our own destiny. If we can get our act together collectively, our team game is good enough that we can have success on this road trip."

Following the loss in Nashville, the Oilers showed signs of validating the confidence expressed by MacTavish. Over the weekend, they notched back-to-back wins Saturday and Sunday at Carolina and Philadelphia.

The trip -- which includes three sets of back-to-back games -- doesn't get any easier. The Oilers lost at Columbus Wednesday night, then were scheduled to be right back on the ice 24 hours later in Pittsburgh. After days off Friday and Saturday, the Oilers visit the Devils Sunday and the Rangers on Monday.

"It is nice to get this trip done early in the year," center Kyle Brodziak told the Sun. "I know later in the year, it starts to become a real long season and it's always nice to be home later on in the year. Now you're not sick of the travel yet, it's always nice to get it out of the way."

Defenseless Avs -- Another team that's difficult to figure out is the Avalanche. The last time we looked, they were 5-3 and seemed to have their game in order. But turn around and they have lost 4-consecutive games, dropping to 5-7 and the bottom of the division.

Struggling offense and spotty defense are never a winning combination, and it's no different in Colorado. The Avalanche have scored 7 goals during the losing streak heading into Thursday's home game against the Wild.

Offensively, players counted on to produce goals have recently been silent, led by Wojtek Wolski (11 games without a goal), Marek Svatos (8), Darcy Tucker (7), Ryan Smyth (6) and Joe Sakic (5).

Meanwhile, the defense has been porous, allowing 18 goals during the 4-game skid, 6 of them in a loss Monday night against the Blackhawks.

"Obviously, it's not acceptable," Sakic told the Rocky Mountain News. "We've got to get back to basics and work. It's definitely a low point right now. We've got to fix it ourselves."

Goalie Peter Budaj added, "We have to start winning hockey games. It doesn't matter if it's 20-19 or 1-0. It's a long season, but enough is enough."

Making the loss to Chicago a tad more painful, the Avalanche lost in the first meeting with their former coach, Joel Quenneville, who is now the Blackhawks' bench boss.

Scorching Flames -- It's been a tale of two seasons for Calgary goalie Miikka Kiprusoff. Through 5 games, he looked like a shadow of his past impenetrable self as the Flames got off to a 1-3-1 start. In those games, Kiprusoff stopped only 85.1 percent of the shots he faced and posted an abysmal 4.40 goals-against average. To be sure, he didn't have much help from his defense, but Kiprusoff wasn't blameless, either.

So what happened? The Flames turned around and won 6 of their next 7 games, with the defense tightening and Kiprusoff allowing only 11 goals before Tuesday's 4-2 loss to Phoenix. During the hot streak, which lifted the Flames out of the Northwest's cellar, Kiprusoff posted a 1.59 GAA with 1 shutout, stopping 95 percent of the shots he faced.

If there was one odd statistic in all of this, it was that during the slow start, the Flames averaged only 24.7 shots on goal allowed. During the hot streak, they allowed more than 31 shots a game. The best explanation is that the Flames have been protecting leads lately, with their opponents firing more shots as they attempt to rally.

"I feel a little bit better," Kiprusoff told the Calgary Herald when asked about his turnaround, "but it's huge defense, too. Everybody's playing much better. I'm helping out the D and they're helping me out. And the forwards are doing great with the back-checking. We have to keep doing that."

The Flames' 6-game winning streak ended with a loss Sunday at Anaheim. But that's nothing new. The Flames have won once in 18 regular-season games at Anaheim since 1999.

"I wouldn't say we're psyched out or anything," captain Jarome Iginla said. "They definitely have a roll going here against us, but we'll keep trying to break it."

Confusing Canucks -- It's hard to know what to make of the Canucks at this point. One night, they record a 4-0 victory at Los Angeles, with Roberto Luongo notching his second shutout of the young season. The next night, the Canucks win an old-fashioned shootout at Anaheim, beating the Ducks 7-6 (in a new-fashioned shootout) with Luongo stopping only 31 of 37 shots during the 65 minutes of traditional hockey. Then, the Canucks turned around and beat the Predators, 4-0, on Tuesday with Luongo recording yet another shutout.

After beating the Kings, the Canucks had killed 13 consecutive power plays over a 3-game span. But in the win at Anaheim, followed 2 nights later by a home loss to Detroit, Vancouver's penalty killers allowed 6 power-play goals in 14 chances.

Defenseman Kevin Bieksa had a simple solution for cutting down on power-play goals allowed.

"You can talk about good penalties and bad penalties, but what it comes down to is the more penalties you take the greater the probability the other team is going to score," Bieksa told the Vancouver Sun. "Right now, we're taking a lot of penalties and we're paying for it."

The Canucks are the NHL's second-most penalized team and their penalty killing has been among the poorest in the League. The Canucks were the League's best penalty-killing team 2 years ago, but were much more ordinary last season.

The team's shorthanded struggles clearly have caught the attention of coach Alain Vigneault, who devoted a large portion of Monday's practice to penalty killing.

"Our 5-on-5 play this year has been pretty solid, it's been improving with the puck and without the puck," Vigneault told the Sun. "Where we need to improve is on our special teams. Our penalty kill needs to get better -- that's faceoffs, that's clearing the puck, blocking shots. It's been very effective in the past, but for some reason we're missing one assignment here and there, and the puck ends up in the back of our net."

Not Tuesday. The Canucks killed all 6 Predators power plays in routing Nashville.

Rumor mill -- Free agent Mats Sundin remains available. The Canucks have been one of the many teams rumored to be interested in his services. ... Meanwhile, the mystery around Minnesota's Marian Gaborik remains. The star forward, recently shelved by a groin injury, will be a free agent after the season. It has looked like the Wild won't re-sign him. So Minnesota, which has done just fine without him, continues to explore trade options. ... Recently strong play by Edmonton backup goalie Dwayne Roloson may give him some trade value for the Oilers, especially with his relatively reasonable salary ($3 million). On the other hand, he's played well enough to push Mathieu Garon for the starting job. The Oilers have been carrying 3 goalies thus far. The third, Jeff Drouin-Deslauriers, is spending a lot of time in the press box.
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