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Northwest: Bourque putting up big numbers

by Roger Phillips
It wasn't exactly the hot news of last summer when the Calgary Flames acquired left wing Rene Bourque from the Chicago Blackhawks for a conditional second-round draft choice.

"Rene is a young player with size who will play in our top nine forwards," Flames General Manager Darryl Sutter said that July day of a player, now 27, who had not scored more than 16 goals in any of his first three NHL seasons. "He will be an important part of the remaking of our left side along with other young players already under contract."

Nearly halfway through his first season playing for a team in his native Alberta, the 6-foot-2, 213-pound Bourque is making Sutter look like a genius. The Flames are rolling along in the Northwest Division, and Bourque is having the best season of his career.

In Saturday night's rout of visiting Ottawa, Bourque recorded the first hat trick of his career, giving him 14 goals for the season. And Sutter's bit about Bourque playing with the top nine forwards? Bourque's in the top six; most recently he has skated on the second line with Daymond Langkow and Todd Bertuzzi.

Bourque's contributions to Saturday's win were especially noteworthy. The Flames were snoozing their way through the game against the struggling Senators, trailing 2-0 midway through the second period. Bourque changed all that, scoring at 10:05 and again at 11:03 to even the score and change the tenor of the game. Then, with 5:35 remaining in the third period and Calgary clinging to a one-goal lead, Bourque scored again to bury the Senators.

"The puck was going in for me tonight," Bourque told reporters. "It's a good feeling. I'll take what I can get and hopefully they keep going in for me."

He said he is loving life playing for a contending team.

"It was a bit of a shock, coming to a team like Calgary, in the playoffs the last couple years," Bourque said. "It was a fresh start, I'm healthy finally, and I have confidence right now. Things are going my way."

A ways to go -- OK, so Mats Sundin wasn't playing yet and Roberto Luongo remains sidelined with a groin injury.

Still, for Canucks fans who want to believe their team can compete with the best in the NHL, a recent visit to the Shark Tank was a sobering reminder of what Vancouver will have to overcome when the playoffs arrive.

Facing the team with the best record in the NHL, the Canucks were drubbed by a 5-0 margin. It wasn't even that close; the Sharks scored all of their goals in less than the first 21 minutes of the game.

Afterward, disappointment was evident all around the dressing room. Rookie goalie Cory Schneider, for one, was upset about his performance after he allowed five goals on 15 shots before being replaced by Curtis Sanford, who stopped all 16 shots he faced.

Meanwhile, Henrik Sedin was disappointed from a team perspective.

"We should have been really up for this game," Sedin told the Vancouver Province. "The last game before Christmas, we'd played a game the night before, we had all the odds against us so this was a game we should really have been focused. We did the opposite."

Defenseman Kevin Bieksa added, "We got out-battled, especially in the first half of the game. I don't think we're a team that should get out-battled by anybody. It was a bad game by us all around. ... It's embarrassing for all of us."

The Canucks get two chances in January to atone for the loss: Jan. 10 at home against the Sharks, and Jan. 27 in a rematch in San Jose.

Plugging along -- The Avalanche deserves a world of credit for hanging tough despite injuries to arguably their two most important players.

Veteran Joe Sakic is sidelined for the foreseeable with back woes compounded by his recent snow-blower mishap. And now, leading scorer Paul Stastny may be sidelined two months with a fractured right forearm. Stastny was injured last week in the final minute of regulation in a 5-4 overtime win over Phoenix.

"We've had our share of injuries the last couple years," defenseman Adam Foote told the Denver Post. "It's no fun, but it's part of the game. You don't want to lose any guy from your team, but obviously it's tough being without Paul and Joe."

Still, in the first game without Stastny, the Avalanche pulled off a 4-3 shootout victory on Saturday – over the Red Wings, no less.

The win actually should have been easier. The Avalanche held a 3-0 lead before allowing the Wings to rally back with three goals in less than four minutes late in the second period. But Peter Budaj saved the day, stopping 41 of 44 shots in the game, along with all three he faced in the shootout. Wojtek Wolski scored the shootout winner.

"Thank God we were able to hold the game to 3-3 and get it to the shootout," Budaj told the Post. "And then 'Wolie' scored a big goal, and I made some saves, so it feels great."

The two points in the standings were crucial. The job for the Avalanche right now is to hang in the playoff picture long enough to get Stastny and Sakic on the ice for the late-season push.

Wild ride -- The season seems to be quickly slipping away from the Wild.

After starting 6-0-1, the Wild was 11-16-1 since following a 2-1 loss Monday at Calgary. And after Wednesday's home game against the Sharks, followed by a Saturday home game against the Red Wings, the Wild was facing a four-game trip.

Despite this, Wild General Manager Doug Risebrough sounds as if he plans to stick with his current roster.


"I don't see a lot of big options there," Risebrough told the Minneapolis Star Tribune. "It's obviously the manager's job to search for those things, but at the end of the day, there's no one thing that's going to make things significantly better because of (certain) factors – some guys are hurt, we have some long-term objectives."

Among the difficulties faced by the Wild this season are the departures of Brian Rolston and Pavol Demitra, along with the frequent injury absences of star forward Marian Gaborik.

Coach Jacques Lemaire said if the Wild doesn't play as a team, they aren't going to win many games. But he would not blame all of his team's problems on a lack of talent.

"Part of it is talent," he told the Star Tribune. "Part of it. Look at the lines. Look at how many goals we're going to get. We're better on defense. We're not as good as last year on offense. That's where the team is at now. We lost 60 goals and (Gaborik's) not back, so that's the reason why we have a hard time to score. We're among the worst teams in the league in goals for. ... The good teams, everyone gets goals."

Risebrough suggested that if Calgary were playing without Jarome Iginla, the Flames would struggle, too. And of course, Gaborik's contract situation might be a distraction, too.

Then again, the Avalanche has managed to press on without Sakic and Stastny. As for the distraction issue with Gaborik, one wonders whether it's bigger than the Wild lets on. Remember that only two years ago, when Ryan Smyth's future was up in the air in Edmonton, the Oilers went on a free fall. Right now, it's the Wild that's plummeting.

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