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Northwest: Can new roster ignite Flames?

by Roger Phillips
The good news for the Calgary Flames is that if they continue losing, at least now it will make a little more sense.

It's been hard to understand the Flames' pratfalls in recent weeks, considering that the team had six marquee players in Miikka Kiprusoff, Jarome Iginla, Olli Jokinen, Robyn Regehr, Dion Phaneuf and Jay Bouwmeester.

With a roster like that, how could they go wrong?

Somehow, though, the Flames did, going on a hellacious winless streak that put them outside the top eight in the Western Conference and in the position of having to battle just to make the playoffs when logic says they should have been challenging for the conference title.

Now, though, after a dizzying week of trading by General Manager Darryl Sutter, Phaneuf is off to Toronto, Jokinen is a Ranger, and the Flames are trying to regroup.

Can they? The Flames did beat the Hurricanes Wednesday night with a hat trick from Curtis Glencross and a goal from newcomer Matt Stajan. But still, you have to wonder. For one thing, if you buy into the theory that the team that gets the best player in any trade is the winner, then the Flames were two-time losers.

In dealing Phaneuf, they unloaded a 24-year-old cornerstone defenseman. In dealing Jokinen, they dumped a center who has been a 34-goal scorer four times in his career but never gelled with Iginla.

Bouwmeester also has been a disappointment. He was supposed to bring scoring from the blue line. Instead, he's been invisible.

Do the season-long struggles impact GM Darryl Sutter and coach Brent Sutter? The Sutters are sainted figures in Alberta, and Darryl Sutter did build a team that just a few years ago reached the 2004 Stanley Cup Final. But the Flames have not been a postseason factor since, unable to capitalize on the window provided by the two franchise stars, Iginla and Kiprusoff.

World turned upside down -- On Saturday in Calgary, the hockey world focused on a battle of ineptitude. The Oilers entered the game winless in 12. The Flames were winless in nine.

It was not Alberta's proudest moment. A classic scene was created by two fans at the game. One wore a Flames sweater. One wore an Oilers sweater. Both wore paper bags over their heads.

The Flames skated to an easy 6-1 victory, though the victory did not prevent them from shaking up their roster the following day.

As for the Oilers, there are no easy fixes on the horizon. And if the Oilers were hoping to deal defenseman Sheldon Souray before next month's trading deadline, they may now have to forget it. Souray broke his hand in a fight with the Flames' Jarome Iginla on Saturday.

"I thought we hit rock bottom a few games ago, but we keep creating holes for ourselves," Oilers captain Ethan Moreau told the Edmonton Journal.

With the loss to the Flames, the Oilers endured a winless month for the first time in the franchise's 30 seasons. They went 0-10-2 in January.

Before beating Carolina on Monday, the Oilers' last win was a 3-1 defeat of the Maple Leafs on Dec. 30. Before that victory, the Oilers lost seven straight.

By beating the Hurricanes, the Oilers avoided setting the franchise record for longest winless streak. The Oilers were winless in 13 during the 1993 season. The Oilers also were swept by the Flames in the six-game season series, the first time either team ever swept the other in the "Battle of Alberta," the Journal reported.

On the plus side, they beat the Flyers, 1-0, Wednesday night on a goal by Ryan Potulny with 17 seconds left in the third period. It's the Oilers' first winning streak since they won five in a row at the start of December.

Suddenly shaky --
No matter how this season turns out for the Avalanche, it will qualify as a huge success.

The team that finished at the bottom of the Western Conference just last season has spent much of this season at or near the top of the Northwest Division. On top of that the Avalanche has accomplished its surprising success while gaining valuable experience for many young players, as well as with a rookie coach, Joe Sacco.

Still, it would be a big disappointment for the Avalanche if, at this late date, they were to stumble and miss the playoffs. But for all the success they've enjoyed, it's not out of the realm of possibility.

With a 3-1 loss Sunday to the Rangers, the Avalanche suffered their third-consecutive loss, though they did beat the Blue Jackets Tuesday. All of a sudden, they find themselves almost as close to missing the playoffs as to being tied with Vancouver for the division lead.

"The key for our team is, when we're skating, we're an effective team," Sacco told the Denver Post.  "The only thing you get out of these things is hard work. There's no secret. Just keep working hard and try to fight through it."

The offense dried up during the losing streak, producing a total of three goals in the three games.

"When things aren't going well, you're gripping the stick tighter, trying harder, instead of getting the ugly goals," captain Paul Stastny told the Post. "Sometimes we're not battling hard enough and moving our feet. When we do that, we have our chances, and when we don't, we have trouble."

Goalie trouble for Wild -- Under ordinary circumstances, starter Niklas Backstrom and capable backup Josh Harding provide the Wild with a solid goaltending duo. But these aren't ordinary circumstances.

Backstrom is ailing and Harding is aching, and so Tuesday, the job fell to journeyman Wade Dubielewicz. The Wild lost to the Stars, 4-2, with Dubielewicz stopping only 14 of 18 shots. The Wild had 42 shots in the game.

Dubielewicz himself admitted he could have done better, telling the Minneapolis Star Tribune, "We should have won this game. You double them in shots, basically what it comes down to is I had to come up with one big save and I couldn't do it."

Coach Todd Richards added; "For 60 minutes, we played some really, really good hockey. We gave up four goals, and I thought defensively it was one of our better games."

The Wild has been battling to get into the playoff picture all season after falling into an early hole with a 3-9 start. Backstrom's illness and Harding's hip injury certainly don't help.
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