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Flames-Canucks rivalry continues to build

by Mike Board / Calgary Flames
At precisely 6:30 p.m. as the clock moved towards the end of 2007, the Vancouver Canucks skated out of the visitors bench for the warm-up skate at the Pengrowth Saddledome. While there was just a smattering of fans arriving for the New Year's Eve tilt between the Calgary Flames and the Canucks, the visitors received a loud, not-so-friendly greeting from the Sea of Red.

It looked like the Canucks again had the Flames' number as they drew first blood 2:34 into the first period, but that was until the final seconds of the middle frame. Up to his usual, Flames' forward Kristian Huselius  makes an impact at the most opportune time, as he tallies the go-ahead goal, which turns out to also be the game winner. Creating traffic in front of the net, the Flames capitalize on the play and dish the puck to Huselius, who situated himself left of netminder Roberto Luongo. In a mad scramble, Huselius gets his stick on the puck and whips one past the Canucks goaltender at 18:55.
36 - shifts for Craig Conroy
25 - shots on net for the Canucks
5 - blocked shots for Vancouver's Willie Mitchell
4- shots on net for Matthew Lombardi
2 - points (assists) for Daymond Langkow
1 - shots it took for the Canucks to tally their first goal
Kiprusoff (S); McElhinney
D Rhett Warrener (ankle);  F David Moss (leg);  F Marcus Nilson (healthy);  F Wayne Primeau (healthy)
Flames blueliner Dion Phaneuf lays the body into Canucks' Matt Cooke, seconds before the Vancouver forward can get his stick on the puck. The hit takes down Cooke at 14:21 of the first and stirs emotion in the Canucks line, as fellow teammate Byron Ritchie immediately goes after Phaneuf for the hit.
Since first hosting the New Year's Eve game during the 1987-88 season, the Flames have recorded nine wins, five losses and three ties...The Flames notched their first win against the Vancouver Canucks tonight and stopped what would have been a five-game winless streak against their Northwest Division rivals...Calgary is 1-3-1 against Vancouver this season, with three of those games being played on home ice...Flames netminder Miikka Kiprusoff is now 13-11-4 against the Canucks in 28 career games...The two rivals have met twice this month, with the Canucks collecting a 5-3 win Dec. 27 at GM Place.
The Flames play host to the New York Rangers for the first time this season and the first time in 2008 as the two teams square off at the Pengrowth Saddledome Wednesday. Game time is 7:00 p.m. MT  and will be broadcast on TSN.
We note the reception because it appears the Battle of Alberta, the longtime rivalry between Calgary and Edmonton, has competition.

Everyone remembers the fierce battles between the Flames and Oilers of the past. The hard-hitting, fast-skating games that also provided some of the best fisticuffs when the two teams met, particularly in the playoffs. There were great goaltending match-ups, great intensity.

The same thing is happening between the Canucks and the Flames every since their seven-game playoff series in 2004, won dramatically in overtime by the Flames. That was a hard-fought, rough and tumble series that featured plenty of hard-hitting, plenty of scoring and plenty of drama. It was also the start of the rivalry, or at least a rekindling of the rivalry.

Now the games between these two teams are intense affairs. They simply don't like each other and, with the claustrophobic standings in the Northwest Division, the four-point games between the two teams take on even more meaning. This game, which closed out a very successful December for the Flames was no different. Things were plenty physical off the get-go and heated up when Dion Phaneuf crushed pest Matt Cooke along the boards in the neutral zone. The Canucks took exception to the hit and Byron Ritchie, the former Flame, jumped in to throw a few punches. Phaneuf received the only penalty on the play but the Flames worked hard to kill the two minutes and get back to business. There were other hits of note: David Hale ramming Markus Naslund into the boards comes to mind along with the hard forecheck from the Flames, which meant finishing every check possible. Cooke was the victim of another Phaneuf crunch in the second period. Chasing down a puck in the Flames zone Cooke pulled up to throw his shoulder into the Flames defenceman. Sorry, bye, bye Matt, eat some of the boards for your New Years dinner.

Heading into the final Flames game of 2007, the only game the Flames had lost in regulation in December was a 5-3 downing by Vancouver on December 27. It marked the fourth straight win for the Northwest Division-leading Canucks over the Flames this season. Knowing the importance of the four-point divisional games, the outcome of games against the Canucks, take on an even greater emphasis.

"It's the whole team. We haven't played well against them," said defenceman Robyn Regehr."Playing a divisional opponent like Vancouver you have to be better. I think the guys should be disappointed, angry, whatever, to get motivated to beat these guys. We have to start winning against them."

There are many aspects of the Calgary-Vancouver rivalry, perhaps none more poignant than the showdown between two of the top goalies in the league in Calgary's Miikka Kiprusoff and Vancouver's Roberto Luongo. Going into the game it has been all Luongo this season as he sported a 4-0 record and a goals against average of 2.20 compared to Kiprusoff's 0-3-1 record and 4.16 goals against average as the Canucks had outscored the Flames 16-9 in four campaigns. When the teams met on December 27 in Vancouver, Kiprusoff was given the hook in the third period.

The game didn't exactly start the way Kiprusoff would have liked. The Flames began the game with plenty of jump with a strong opening shift from Owen Nolan, Daymond Langkow and Alex Tanguay. Matthew Lombardi then had a great scoring chance from the low slot and missed the net. The opportunistic Canucks, who had not crossed centre carrying the puck on their own, turned things up ice and Daniel Sedin ripped a wrister past Kiprusoff at 2:34 on the Canucks opening shot of the game. The performance of Daniel and Henrik Sedin, along with fellow Swede Markus Naslund -- they had combined for 19 points in the previous four games against Calgary -- has been a thorn in the Flames side. Despite watching another Sedin goal, the Flames never took the 'Oh, woe is us' attitude. Instead they stuck the with gameplan of playing physical and, in the end, limited the effectiveness of the Sedins.

There was no way Kiprusoff was going to get the hook from this one. He had the game face on. In the second period Kiprusoff was excellent. His best stop may have come with 7:19 remaining in the period and a Flames penalty expiring. Alex Edler snuck in from the point and let a blast go from the inner hash mark. Anticipating the play Kiprusoff came way out of his crease to make a big, sliding pad save and keep the game tied 1-1 In the first seven minutes of the third, with the Flames shorthanded, Kiprusoff made three stellar saves, looking very much like the Vezina-winning goalie of the past.

The Flames responded to the Canucks first period goal when Nolan buried a top shelf shot from an awkward angle at 11:27 to tie the game. And, building on scoring three goals on tipped shotsthe last time they faced Luongo, the Flames got plenty of traffic to the net which payed off when Kristian Huselius capitalized on a rebound at 18:55 of the second, giving the Flames a hard-fought 2-1 lead.

The Flames, wisely, did not look back on the four losses to the Canucks heading into the game. They looked forward. They were hungry for a win. They were determined. They played with tenacity, right to the end of the game.

"It's time to end this," declared Iginla prior the game. "There's not reason we can't do that."

Consider the job done, at least on this night. The win closed the gap between the Flames and the division-leading Canucks to three points with roughly half a season left.

"It's a league where things can change in a hurry. You have to look at the opportunities ahead of you," said head coach Mike Keenan.

Should be a fight to the finish in the Northwest Division.

Let the rivalry continue.

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