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Class of Northwest clash in opener

by Staff

CANUCKS (0-0-0) at FLAMES (0-0-0)

Season Series -- It's the first game for both teams, who were 2-2-2 in 2008-09. The final preseason game between the teams on Sept. 26 might provide a good idea of what to expect. Goalies Miikka Kiprusoff and Roberto Luongo both looked like they were ready to go, stopping 35 and 24 shots respectively, and Alberta native Mason Raymond's sleek shootout goal against Kiprusoff wowed the Calgary crowd and gave the Canucks a win.

Big Story -- Normally, preseason records don't amount to much -- except perhaps when a team goes 7-0-2. The Canucks did just that, including a pair of shootout wins over the Flames. The teams figure to battle for the Northwest Division title again -- Vancouver blew past the Flames in the final week to finish two points ahead of Calgary. Both teams then lost to Chicago in the playoffs; the Flames in the first round, the Canucks in the second.

Team Scope

Flames -- Calgary made one big change behind the bench, bringing in coach Brent Sutter fresh from a two-year stretch in New Jersey, and another at the blue line by landing Jay Bouwmeester from Florida. Both moves reflect an effort to shore up a defense that finished 23rd in the League last season. The basics are still in place, working outward from Kiprusoff in net and Dion Phaneuf on defense to Jarome Iginla and Olli Jokinen leading the attack, but their approach will be a bit different under Sutter, playing a more meticulous, defensive-oriented game to take pressure off their 32-year-old goalie.

"Good defensive teams are hard-working teams and teams that are very committed in doing little things like blocking shots, making sure they're taking angles right and their sticks are in the right place," explained Sutter, who prefers no more than 25 shots per game on his goalies.

Canucks -- Like Calgary, Vancouver kept its core intact, opening up the vault to keep the Sedin brothers and Luongo in blue and green for the foreseeable future. Defenseman Mattias Ohlund followed the sun to Tampa Bay, but Mathieu Schneider's experience will help a defense that played poorly against the Blackhawks in the Western semifinals.

One surprise was the return of top prospect Cory Hodgson to juniors.

"He just wasn't ready," coach Alain Vigneault said. "We really believe this young man has a tremendous amount of upside but at the end of the day he didn't show any signs that he was ready to play at this level. This is the National Hockey League. It’s the best league in the world. We felt that the best thing was for him to go back to junior, to his team. We’re confident we’re going to have a better player next year."

Injury Report -- With Pavol Demitra's return to the Canucks another month away and Schneider also on IR, a solid preseason (seven points in four games) earned Sergei Shirokov a top-six forward spot.

"The way Shirokov played in training camp, Demitra healthy or not, he was pushing for that." Vigneault said. "You can only speculate how Demitra might have played, but out of the players that are healthy, he's deserving of that spot."

For salary-cap purposes, though, Demitra (shoulder) will remain on the active roster. Rick Rypien (illness) and Kevin Bieksa (groin) did not participate in practice Tuesday.

Jannik Hansen broke three fingers on his right hand Sunday night and is expected to be out 6-8 weeks.

The Flames are entering the season in good health. Forwards Jamie Lundmark and Colin Stuart were the final cuts on Wednesday.

Stat Pack -- Miikka Kiprusoff's GAA since leading the Flames to the Stanley Cup Final in 2003-04 has gone steadily higher: from 2.07 in 2005-06 to 2.46 in '06-07, 2.69 in 2007-08 and 2.84 last season.

Puck Drop -- Brent Sutter's hiring as Flames' coach made it five Sutters on Calgary's payroll. There's also GM Darryl, director of player personnel Duane, scout Ron and forward Brett, who will begin the season in the minors.

-- Matthew Mankiewich,

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