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Flames-Canucks battle likely going down to wire

by Roger Phillips
Though the 4-1 final score said otherwise, the showdown between the Flames and Canucks in Vancouver on Tuesday was a tightly contested battle that was everything it was supposed to be -- except for the fact that it really decided nothing in the Northwest Division.

Had the Flames won, it would have been different. Calgary would have clinched the division. Instead, the battle probably will go right down to the final Saturday of the season. The Canucks will be in Denver to face the Avalanche. The Flames will be home to wrap up a home-and-home with their provincial rivals from Edmonton.

The hero of the Canucks-Flames game was Vancouver goalie Roberto Luongo. The Flames outshot the Canucks, 47-25, but Luongo stopped 46 shots for the victory.

How the division plays out will determine Western Conference seeding and first-round opponents.

The division winner probably is looking at a first-round series against Columbus, which will be making its playoff debut. The Canucks were 1-2-1 against the Blue Jackets this season; the Flames were 2-2.

Whichever team finishes second in the Northwest probably will face the Blackhawks in the opening round. The Canucks were 2-2 against Chicago this season; the Flames were 0-3-1.

When you come right down to it, the Flames and Canucks both are lucky to still have a shot at the division title. The Flames were inconsistent down the stretch, and the Canucks could have gained a stranglehold on the division with wins last weekend against non-playoff teams Edmonton and Colorado. But the Canucks lost both games.

And consider this: The Flames have failed to score on their last 37 power-play opportunities, yet still might win their division. Making matters worse, the Flames have allowed a League-high 15 shorthanded goals this year.

"We definitely know it's our responsibility not to get scored against," Jarome Iginla told the Calgary Herald. "All of us who are on it feel responsible for the goals this year. … It's not any one thing. Sometimes, it's mental lapses. Sometimes, it's not getting back and helping each other out, and sometimes, it's bad breaks. It's not any one guy. It's all of us who are out there."

A year of losses -- No matter how this season ends for the Canucks, even if a Stanley Cup is hoisted, it has been a year of sadness when accounting for the real-life tragedies and difficulties that have occurred off the ice.

Last summer, the Canucks lost promising young defenseman Luc Bourdon, who was killed in a motorcycle accident. Much of this season, center Rick Rypien has been out of action while dealing with undisclosed personal issues. And most recently, there was the shocking death of forward Taylor Pyatt's fiancée in an automobile accident in Jamaica.

"It's really sad and a trying time right now but we're a tight group," said Pyatt's friend and teammate, forward Alex Burrows. "We've faced adversity in the past and we'll try to battle through it."

As for Rypien, he's glad to be back from the sports-hernia injury -- and the non-hockey personal issue -- that kept him away from the Canucks for so long.

"I'm very excited, it's been awhile," Rypien told the Vancouver Province. "It's huge (to be back). I didn't expect to take this long but I'm glad to be back. I'm excited and nervous at the same time. Obviously, I've been out for a long time."

Rypien's return adds a valuable penalty killer just in time for the playoffs.

"I think I can play a pretty important role here," Rypien told the Province. "I think the playoffs is what it's all about, that kind of suits my style. I want to use these games from here on in to get ready for that."

Oil and vinegar? -- The Oilers' disappointing season is winding down, the third-straight year Edmonton will miss the playoffs. The last time the Oilers reached the playoffs, they advanced all the way to Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final before losing to Carolina.

But that team had Chris Pronger and Ryan Smyth, who are long gone. And that team was united; this team may be divided, though the players are denying it. There have been rumors of a rift in the Oilers' dressing room, though captain Ethan Moreau and defenseman Sheldon Souray insist this is not the case.

"There's enough things to report that are negative. You can't just make up things," Moreau told the Edmonton Journal. "It's just totally false. Talk to anybody in the room. Talk to an older guy, to a younger guy. Talk to guys on other teams. You can't just make up a story about a rift in the room. It's just unfortunate because then it gets legs."

The rumor reportedly originated with some televised suggestions of disharmony. Moreau and Souray took the initiative to refute the reports.

"My biggest issue as a coach right now is just trying to eliminate the distractions as much as possible," coach Craig MacTavish told the Journal. "We have to focus in on the game. … To me, the room is as good as it can be in a situation like this. Yeah, you want a little bit of accountability in there and I think we have a good balance there but there's plenty of criticism to go around. Just don't get wrapped up in it."

Another popular rumor has been that MacTavish will lose his job as a result of another disappointing season. But Oilers owner Darryl Katz's recent text message to radio analyst Bob Stauffer might put an end to those rumors.

It read: "MacT is not going anywhere."

Lapping it up -- There really isn't much more to be said about the Avalanche at this point. A promising season turned miserable due to injuries, and Colorado soon enters an offseason full of questions:

*Will Joe Sakic retire?

*Will Tony Granato be back as coach?

*Will Francois Giguere return as GM?

*What other changes are in store for a team that has missed two of the last three postseasons?

"People are at the office 9 to 5, so I don't think it's that much to ask to be at the rink this much. When you love your work it's not that hard."
-- Ian Laperriere

But there has been a bright spot this year: veteran center and agitator Ian Laperriere, who will reach the 1,000-game milestone before season's end.

Laperriere, 35, also is the Avalanche nominee for the Bill Masterton Trophy, awarded annually to the NHL player who best exemplifies perseverance, sportsmanship and dedication to hockey.

"Well deserved," Sakic told the Denver Post. "What he does in the dressing room for the guys and for the community, his preparation and everything about him, is as professional as you can get."

Laperriere modestly downplayed the honor.

"What, I'm here three, four hours a day?" Laperriere told the Post. "People are at the office 9 to 5, so I don't think it's that much to ask to be at the rink this much. When you love your work it's not that hard."

Laperriere has been very active in Denver charitable work, and was named the 2008 "Father of the Year" by the Denver Father's Day Council.

"It's flattering to be recognized for that, but I don't do it for awards like this," he told the Post. "I'm fortunate to do what I do and to be where I am in life. My family is healthy, and I get a chance to help people. Ninety-nine percent of hockey players would do that."
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