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Scouting the Competition: 27.12.09

by Torie Peterson / Calgary Flames

As the Calgary Flames head into the last week of 2009 with one of the best defensive corps in the NHL, they're looking to ignite their offense without shirking their responsibilities in their own end.

Craig Conroy

"It’s such a very careful thing to talk about because you start focusing so much on offence and all of a sudden you end up being a team that’s giving up 40, 45 shots a game, and our chances of winning those games aren’t very good," said head coach Brent Sutter last week."I think what it is more than anything is our puck management. We haven’t been very good with the puck, haven’t created enough in the offensive zone. And we haven’t been rewarded for some of our work in the offensive zone."

One big change has been the addition of Craig Conroy to the right wing of the top line. Jarome Iginla has been shifted to the left wing and Olli Jokinen will center the trio. Sutter hopes pairing Conroy with the Iginla and Jokinen will kick-start the two superstar's offense.

Conroy, who has yet to hit the back of the net this season, is looking forward to the opportunity.

"I just want to create some stuff," said Conroy. "Make some passes. They’re both shooters, so I won’t be so worried about the goal."

FLAMES OLYMPIC WATCH: F Iginla (possible for Canada), D Bouwmeester (possible for Canada), D Phaneuf (possible for Canada), D Regehr (possible for Canada), G Kiprusoff (possible for Finland), F Jokinen (possible for Finland)

Flames vs. Oilers, Monday, Dec. 28, 7:00 p.m. MST at Rexall Place, Rogers Sportsnet West & The FAN 960

The Edmonton Oilers are not a happy crew. When the Flames roll into Oil Country on Monday, the hometown boys will be looking to stop a slide that has seen them lose six straight contests and has put them in the basement of the Western Conference with 34 points. They're also second last in the entire league, with only the Carolina Hurricanes trailing them with 25 points.

A major issue the Oilers are facing is their penalty killing ability. On Saturday night, the Canucks were able to score two of their four goals while on the power play. Both goals came on a 5-on-3 sequence and while the Oilers captain can see why the first goal was scored, he's still very unhappy with his club's play while down a man.

Ethan Moreau

"You're hardly going to win any games if you don't win the special teams battles," Moreau told the assembled media. "As good as you play five-on-five, you're just spinning your tires. The five-on-three you can accept, guess, but then we gave up a shorthanded goal right after. We're not getting in lanes, we're not taking guys in front and then our power play doesn't respond for us. So, it's just special teams, that's why we lost, it's pretty simple."

Overall, Edmonton is ranked 27th in the NHL while on the power play with a 76.3 per cent rate of efficiency.

"Lately, our penalty killing has not done a very good job, there always seems to be loose pucks around the front," lamented head coach Pat Quinn after Saturday's loss.

Quinn doesn't think his team as been flat-out bad through their slump. He made sure to emphasis what his team has done right lately and said the Oilers would be focusing on the positives as they head into the Battle of Alberta.

"You can do good things for part of the night but at the end of the day, if you don't win, you try to remember the good things but, we have to find a way to eliminate the number of mistakes we're making because hockey teams that make less mistakes usually win the hockey game and we're just making too many," he stated in a post-game press conference on Saturday.

Moreau wasn't so kind to his team.

"Well, we know what the problem is," he told the Edmonton Journal. "If you're going out and you're bad five-on-five and you can't compete, then it's a daunting task."

OILERS OLYMPIC WATCH:D Denis Grebeshkov (named to Russia's team)

Flames vs. Kings, Wednesday, Dec. 30, 7:00 p.m. MST at the Pengrowth Saddledome, Rogers Sportsnet West & The FAN 960

After climbing to top spot in the Western Conference, the Los Angeles Kings have come back down to Earth. They're now in third spot in Pacific Division with 47 points and are fifth overall in the West. Even with this slight dip in the standings, the Kings are still one of the toughest teams to beat. They've gone 6-3-1 in their last 10 outings and have been able to score 30 goals in that span.

The Kings were dealt a huge blow offensively on Saturday though. Just two shifts into the game against the Phoenix Coyotes, Justin Williams was hit hard by Ed Jonvanovski and landed awkwardly beneath teammate Anze Kopitar and the Coyotes blueliner. The landing broke this leg and has most likely taken him out for the season.

"When he was coming in front of the bench on the stretcher, pulling his hair, he was hurting. He was hurting a lot," head coach Terry Murray said in his post-game press conference. "Very disappointing. It's very disappointing for Willie. He's gone through some injuries the last couple of years that he worked hard to get back to playing a good game. And he was really happy with the line and how everything was going at the start of the year. It's very unfortunate."

The injury came at an oddly good time for the Kings. Wayne Simmonds and Brandon Segal were activated from the team's injured reserve on Saturday and were able to hop back into the action that night. Also, Ryan Smyth and Jack Johnson both returned to the lineup on Saturday after being hampered with injuries. Murray wasn't worried about rink rust for his returning players and assumed they'll be back to their normal minutes and lines this week.

Ryan Smyth

"I'm assuming that they're going to get slotted back in and play the number of minutes and the same situations," Murray told "Ryan Smyth has been out for quite a while, as we know, but has been on the ice for probably three weeks. In my mind, as a veteran player, he's able to get right back in and contribute. Same thing with Wayne Simmonds."

Kopitar is leading the Kings in scoring with 16 goals and 39 points. He started off his season red-hot but cooled off when Smyth was injured on Nov. 16. The return of his old linemate is likely to spark him offensively, especially with his other linemate, Williams, falling to injury.

"When a guy like that is out of the lineup it's always fun when the guy gets back," Kopitar told the Los Angeles Times on Saturday morning. "We're back on the same line and I thought it was pretty good in the practice today. He didn't miss much. I guess he missed six weeks but he's still pretty good. I think he's still got it."

Murray is looking forward to seeing what the two can do now that they're reunited.

"I think Kopi, as much as anybody - maybe next to me - is as happy to see him back," Murray said after practice on Saturday. "He clearly was playing some great hockey with (Smyth) at the start."

Smyth has nine tallies and 23 points in his 23 games this season.

KINGS OLYMPIC WATCH: D Doughty (possible for Canada), F Smyth (possible for Canada), D Johnson (possible for USA), G Quick (possible for USA), F Brown (possible for USA), Kopitar (possible for Slovenia)

Flames vs. Oilers, Thursday, Dec. 31, 7:00 p.m. MST at the Pengrowth Saddledome, Rogers Sportsnet West & The FAN 960

The Flames are looking to end 2009 on a positive note with the annual Battle of Alberta on New Years Eve. The Oilers are just looking for the year to end after a dismal first half to their season.

Shawn Horcoff

One player who must be waiting with bated breath for 2009 to come to a close is Shawn Horcoff. After signing a massive contract with the Oilers this summer, the veteran centreman has been a bust. He's only amassed eight goals and 16 points as of Dec. 27 and is sporting a -16 rating. Quinn says that the forward has been too hesitant this season.

"We want to see him attacking more," Quinn told the Edmonton Journal. "That's confidence to me. When players are on, they're aware, know what's going on out there. They know the pass is coming and what the plan is. When they're not prepared and they get the puck, the escape is to turn back, so they don't goof up, but they often kill the play."

Horcoff has been shifted from line to line after Ales Hemsky's season-ending injury. On Saturday, he played with J.F. Jacques and Patrick O'Sullivan but he's also been paired with Dustin Penner. The idea of placing him on a line with the big winger was to open up more space and time for Horcoff to work with but that hasn't gone to plan yet.

"We've experimented with (Horcoff) and Penner, but we're going to switch it up again," Quinn told Edmonton media last week. "I put him with Dustin to pretty much help Horc ... the combination with (Horcoff) and (O'Sullivan) were getting scored on every time they turned around. Jacques, too. Their play wasn't bad, but they were coughing things up and getting caught for goals. We're hoping we get the good side of what they can be."

Penner is leading the Oilers on the offensive front with 38 points (19 g, 19 a) in 38 games. After his output, the offense is troubling. Defenseman Lubomir Visnovsky is second in scoring with eight goals and 25 points. Third on the list is injured Hemsky who only played 22 games this season, picking up seven goals and 22 points in that span. The Oilers only have a single player, Penner, who has hit double digits in goals scored.

Goaltending hasn't been pleasant for the team either. Start Nikolai Khabibulan has started just 18 games this season as he's been sidelined with different injuries. According to the Oilers injury report, he's out indefinitely. His back up, Jeff Drouin-Deslauriers, has started in 19 and is expected to play both games against the Flames this year. In his time in net, Deslauriers has a 2.89 GAA and a .906 save percentage.

Flames vs. Maple Leafs, Jan. 2, 5:00 p.m. MST at the Pengrowth Saddledome, CBC & The FAN 960

After a very rocky start to their season, the Toronto Maple Leafs have begun the daunting task of climbing up the Northeast Division ladder.

With 35 points in 39 games, they're only six points behind their archrival, the Montreal Canadiens, and have picked up 10 points in their last 10 contests. They aren't happy with one aspect of their game that has crept up lately - the inability to make it out of overtime unscathed. They ended their week with a 3-2 overtime loss to the Habs on Saturday and while they earned a point out of the contest, they're not pleased with the outcome.

"At this stage in the season, we've got to pick up these wins," defenseman Ian White told assembled media on Saturday night. "(Overtime) has cost us in the past. Those are big points we're missing out on and I'm not sure exactly why, if we're asleep in overtime or what. We've got to be on the offensive and we've got to start getting some of these extra points."

Tomas Kaberle

Tomas Kaberle is leading the way offensively for the Leafs. He's notched three goals and 34 points in his 39 games and if his offensive flair continues, he may be poised to make Maple Leafs history. No defenseman has ever led the club in scoring in franchise history and if he continues to wrack up points, his name could be in record books. Even with that accolade on the line this season, Kaberle is unconcerned about his personal stats this campaign.

"I'm not looking at it that way. Obviously points are good but it has a lot to do with team effort. I've got a lot of help from teammates," he told the Toronto Star. "It doesn't matter who is leading the scoring, we just want to be in a playoff position. We've been doing a lot better job lately so we have to keep it up and get into eighth spot. Stats are something you look at at the end of the season."

He may have some competition as the season comes. Phil Kessel has been a beacon of hope offensively for the Leafs. In his 27 games, he's scored 13 goals and 21 points. He's also a +1 - a rare sight for a forward on the Maple Leafs stat sheet.

Goaltending has been split between veteran Vesa Toskala and Jonas Gustavsson. Both men have been hit with the injury bug this season so it's been hard to gauge which would be the rightful starter but Gustavsson has shown flashes of genius when he's in net. In his 21 games, the 25 year-old has gone 7-6-6 with a 2.86 GAA and a .905 save percentage. He's had a few shaky starts this year but he's trying not to dwell on the past.

"I can't worry about what happened one month ago. I feel good now and the last couple of games, I've been feeling good so I just hope I can continue that way," Gustavsson told the Toronto Star.

LEAFS OLYMPIC WATCH: G Gustavsson (named to Sweden's team), D Kaberle (possible for Czech Republic), F Kessel (possible for USA)

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