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Northwest: Avalanche playoff spot slip-sliding away

by Roger Phillips
It looked too easy to be true. And as it is turning out, it may have been too easy.

Moving on from the Joe Sakic era and from a last-place finish in the Western Conference last season, the youthful and rebuilt Avalanche stunned the NHL by starting this season 12-3-2. Not only did they lead the Northwest Division for quite some time, they were first overall in the League.

It seemed they were on their way to easily returning to the playoffs. And in fact, it still seemed that way not too long ago.

But with six losses in their last seven games, the Avalanche suddenly are barely hanging on. They are only 29-25-5 since their fast start and their once-safe hold on the playoffs is now a mere two-point lead.

And that two-point lead is over a Calgary Flames team that seemed dead a week ago, but now is one victory away from making things very interesting. Friday night's game in Denver between the Flames and Avalanche has the look of a play-in game for the final playoff berth in the West.

The Flames have five games remaining and the Avalanche have six. A Calgary regulation win Friday would draw the teams even and leave the Avalanche still owning a game in hand. But you have to wonder about the collective psyche of the Avalanche, particularly if they lose yet again.

Colorado's skid began with a 3-2 loss at home to Calgary on March 17. Just as damaging was a pair of 5-2 losses to Anaheim -- one on the road, the other at home. The Ducks are out of the playoff picture, yet the Avalanche couldn't even pick up a single point in those two defeats.

"The ball's in our court still," coach Joe Sacco told the Denver Post before Wednesday's lopsided home loss to Anaheim. "We can control our destiny. We don't have to worry about what other teams do still."

That remains the case, at least for the time being. But if the Avalanche don't find some answers soon, their dream season might wind up a nightmare.

Colorado's remaining schedule is not easy. The Avalanche host the Sharks Sunday, then have to visit the Canucks and the recently improved Oilers Tuesday and Wednesday. Then it's home to wrap up the season against the Blackhawks on April 9 and the Kings on April 11.

The Flames, meanwhile, head from Denver to Chicago for a game Sunday, return home to face the Sharks and Wild, then finish April 10 at Vancouver.

Great expectations -- If you follow an NHL team bound for the postseason, a key date on the calendar is April 14, when the Stanley Cup Playoffs begin. If you follow the Oilers, the key date is April 13 -- the day of the NHL Draft Lottery.

The Oilers have wrapped up the worst record in the League, meaning they are the frontrunners among non-playoff teams battling for the No. 1 overall draft choice. The Oilers have a 48.2-percent chance of getting the first pick and the opportunity to draft the next Wayne Gretzky (or, if they're unlucky, the next Patrik Stefan).

In Edmonton, they are hoping that in addition to a top draft pick they have found some promising youngsters to play between the pipes.

Sore-backed Nikolai Khabibulin's signing proved expensive and disastrous, but his long-term absence provided ample opportunity for Jeff Deslauriers and Devan Dubnyk, and both goalies have taken advantage of the chances they've been given.

But the Oilers have decisions to make. The contracts of 25-year-old Deslauriers and Dubnyk, 23, expire after the season.

"I am not the one making the decisions," Deslauriers told the Edmonton Journal. "The only thing I can control is my game right now. This summer? That is why I have an agent. My job is to do it on the ice, his job is off the ice."

"I try not to think about it," Dubnyk said. "I can soak in this summer, then I'll wait and see what transpires. I can't get too worried about what happens."

Coach Pat Quinn doesn't mind having two good, young goalies to choose from.

"They're both improving and hopefully it'll continue," Quinn told the Journal. "They'll help us grow more in front (defensively), too, the way they've been the last three weeks."

Bright spot -- It was just a couple years ago that Brent Burns of the Wild was considered one of the NHL's best young defensemen, a two-way player who could do the job in his own zone and also be a threat on the attack. His size, 6-foot-5 and 219 pounds, was one more part of the package.

In 2007-08, the 2003 first-round draft choice (20th overall) scored 15 goals and added 28 assists, and it seemed he was well on his way to stardom. But a serious concussion set Burns back late last season and early this season, and a shoulder injury also slowed him during 2009-10. It's only been recently that the 25-year-old Burns has shown flashes of his past potential.

"I've felt pretty good about my game the last little while. I think I'm getting my game back to where I want to be," Burns told the St. Paul Pioneer Press. "It's been a tough year and a half, two years. I think I'm still trying to figure it out a little bit."

The Wild will not make the playoffs this season, leaving Burns with plenty of time to prepare for next year and his hoped-for return to the status of one of the rising stars in the league.

"It's a big summer for me, and I really want to get in shape," he told the newspaper. "I want to be a guy they can count on next year. So far this year I don't think I've really played as well as I can. I don't know why. It has nothing to do with effort or anything like that, I think it just was a pretty tough summer for me. I wasn't in as a good a shape as I like to be, and you're just chasing from then on.

"This summer I plan on really getting in great shape and coming back and being, hopefully, an elite defenseman in the league."

Needless distraction --
With the division title all but clinched, the Canucks are dealing with a bit of a distraction in the form of disciplining defenseman Shane O'Brien for being late to practice Monday.

O'Brien was scratched for Tuesday's win against the Coyotes and was not expected to play Thursday against the Kings or Friday against the Ducks.

Coach Alain Vigneault acknowledged to Vancouver reporters that O'Brien's tardiness to one practice is not the complete story. Team observers believe the severity of the discipline is an indication that O'Brien either did something more serious than show up late for a single practice, or that his lengthy benching is a sort of lifetime achievement award for past indiscretions.

"Obviously, there's more to this than just yesterday's incident, so we've got a plan for Shane O'Brien," Vigneault told the Vancouver Province. "He will not be practicing with the team until Sunday and his situation there will be reevaluated -- barring injuries to other players. It's not a suspension. We've got a plan for him, a special program."

But Vigneault declined to provide additional details to the ominous-sounding "special program."

"I just said, there's more than this incident and I'm not a rookie at this, so you can try many ways with many questions -- it's not going to work," Vigneault told the Province.
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