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Northwest: Break comes at right time for Canucks

by Roger Phillips
The Winter Olympics are under way, and the Vancouver Canucks are well on their way to surviving their marathon road trip.

Despite a 6-2 loss to the Wild on Sunday, the Canucks are 4-4-0 on their trip, which will conclude with six more games following the Olympics, beginning March 2 at Columbus.

Most significantly, the Canucks entered the Olympic break in first place in the Northwest Division following eight consecutive road games. They share the top spot with the Avalanche.

Even if they don't win the division, the Canucks appear fairly safe as far as locking down a playoff berth. They reached the break eight points ahead of Dallas and Detroit, which share the ninth spot in the Western Conference. With only 21 games left, eight points would seem a fairly comfortable margin barring a major meltdown.

Following the loss at Minnesota, Canucks coach Alain Vigneault was realistic about what his team was facing.

"Today was our third game in 3 1/2 days with a lot of traveling, so I think it's safe to say there was some fatigue in our game," Vigneault told the Vancouver Sun. "And we're like a lot of teams, you need your best players to be at their best and we had quite a few of our guys -- a lot of those are our Olympians -- who didn't have a very good game."

Getting healthy -- The Wild have a lot of work to do after the break if they are to reach the playoffs, but their task is not impossible.

They trail the eighth-place Flames by five points in the conference race, though they do have a game in hand on Calgary. The big challenge for the Wild is that they would have to leapfrog over a bunch of teams that currently are ahead of them but not in playoff position.

They trail the Blues by one point, the Ducks by three and the Red Wings and Stars by four.

On a positive note, the two-week break may allow the Wild to get all hands on deck -- or close to it -- by the time the NHL regular-season resumes.

That could include forward Pierre-Marc Bouchard, who has missed all but one game this season due to a concussion. He told the St. Paul Pioneer Press he has been "feeling better," which means he may be able to get on an exercise bike by the end of the break.

"If I can get two days without pressure and headaches," he told the newspaper, "I'll try getting on the bike."

The paper said Bouchard recently received treatment in Montreal for whiplash he suffered last season when he sustained a concussion March 25. The treatment seems to have helped, he said.

The resumption of the season also could lead to the returns of forward Chuck Kobasew (out since December with a knee injury) and backup goalie Josh Harding (sidelined with a February hip injury).

Perhaps on the downside, the Wild have five Olympians who won't be getting any rest at all.

"You've got five guys going who are going to be playing at a pretty intense level," coach Todd Richards told the Pioneer Press. "Physically demanding, mentally demanding, emotionally demanding, so it'll be interesting to see what transpires in the Olympics and then what happens afterwards."

End of an era -- Ethan Moreau has been with the Oilers since 1999 and he's been their captain since 2007. But at 34, with the trade deadline looming and the Oilers in need of a major rebuild, Moreau believes he may have played his final game for Edmonton.

Moreau, defenseman Steve Staios and their families were planning a trip to Maui over the break to recuperate and to get ready for the rest of the season -- wherever that will be.

"It's going to be nice to get away from the game," Moreau told the Edmonton Sun. "It's been a pretty tough 60 games mentally for everyone. It'll be a welcome break for sure."

Staios, 36 and an Oiler since the 2001-02 season, also is preparing for the possibility that he'll soon be wearing a new uniform.

"You have to be realistic," he told the paper. "In the situation we're in, that's what tends to happen. I'm sure (getting traded) will cross my mind a little bit over the break. For me, it's a little bit of an uncertain time, but I've been through this before and my experience will help me focus on the right direction.

"Whatever happens, I try to show up every day and put in my best effort and be a good leader. That won't change."

Also moving? -- Though his contract could make a trade difficult, there is speculation in Denver that Avalanche defenseman John-Michael Liles could be on the move.

Liles, 29, is in his sixth season in the NHL, all with Colorado, but recently was scratched for several games. He's the third-highest paid player on the team and has two more years on his contract after this one.

"It's not easy, and that's the best way I could put it," Liles told the Denver Post. "It's never easy being on the sidelines. The coach (Joe Sacco) made it clear he expects more of me. It's not easy to take right now, but he's getting it across, that's for sure."

Liles said he is hoping to remain in Denver.

"No, I don't want to be traded," he told the Post. "I love Colorado. I love it here. I want to be playing and I always do. There's a reason why I signed here and I want to be here. I want to be a part of what this is."

Part of the problem is the Avalanche have eight healthy defensemen, Sacco told the paper.

"I don't want to repeat myself any more," Sacco said. "It's a situation where we have eight healthy defensemen and I go with the six healthy defensemen I think give us the best chance to win."

Liles returned to the lineup for the final game before the break, a 3-0 loss to Los Angeles. He played more than 20 minutes and had an even plus/minus rating.
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