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Northwest: Canucks, Flames eyeing potential winner-take-all game

by Roger Phillips
Just two months ago, it would have been hard to imagine the implications of Tuesday's game in Vancouver between the Canucks and Flames.

On Jan. 31, the Canucks were 22-20-8, and their biggest concern was simply trying to make it to the postseason. The Flames, on the other hand, were 30-14-4 and seemed to have the Northwest Division wrapped up.   

Much has changed, however, in the past two months. The Flames have been maddeningly inconsistent and have frittered away their big division lead. The Canucks, meanwhile, jelled after Mats Sundin became accustomed to his new surroundings and Roberto Luongo returned from his groin injury.

Thus, Tuesday's game very well may determine which team will gain home-ice advantage in the opening round of the playoffs -- though both would start the playoffs at home if they finish ahead of the Blackhawks in the standings.

The Canucks whipped Chicago at the United Center on Sunday, 4-0, further cementing the belief that Vancouver will be a very dangerous team when the playoffs begin.

"I think it was maybe our most complete game of the season," Luongo told the Vancouver Province. "It had a playoff feel, no doubt. There was a lot of intensity and these are the type of games when it's a lot of fun to be a part of it all."

"We approached this as our biggest game of the season," defenseman Kevin Bieksa told the Province. "Going into it, we wanted to win it for a lot of reasons. One was, if we play them in the first round of the playoffs, we wanted to set the tone. I think we did that.

"It gives us confidence on the road. We hadn't been playing our best hockey on the road lately. But to come into a game like this and beat a good hockey team definitely boosts our confidence."

Great Scott -- Too bad the Bruins and Wild aren't in the same division. It would be fun to see 6-foot-9 Bruins defenseman Zdeno Chara colliding with 6-8 Wild rookie John Scott on a regular basis.

Scott, 26, has been filling a variety of roles recently as the Wild try to squeeze into the playoffs. He's getting ice time because of the injury to defenseman Brent Burns. He's also gotten into a couple of fights, filling a role with enforcer Derek Boogaard sidelined.

The Wild signed Scott, an Edmonton native, as a free agent in 2006. Only now, though, is he getting a taste of the NHL. He made his NHL debut Jan. 3, but more recently has been a regular in the lineup, appearing in a total of 16 games, 11 of them in March.

Assistant coach Mike Ramsey said Scott has improved as he's gained experience this season.

"Size, strength, poise," Ramsey said, describing Scott to the Minneapolis Star Tribune. "His game is coming along over the course of the year. He knows where to be. You get a guy that's 6-8, they're not like sports cars racing around out there."

General Manager Doug Risebrough added, "He has that desperation: 'I better deliver it.' He's a defender more than anything. With people out, he's getting an opportunity."

Scott -- who played college hockey at Michigan Tech -- recognizes his limitations, which is a good thing.

"I'm not very skilled, but anytime you can help the team out, it's great," Scott told the paper. "I'm starting to get a lot more comfortable on the ice, starting to make passes that are close to being on the tape, instead of icing it all the time.

"I'm having the time of my life here. I go into every game knowing I've got about 10, 15 minutes to play hard, and that's all I have to do."

Chokers? -- The Flames' latest disappointment was a 2-1 loss at home to the Sharks on Monday night. Afterward, one of the Calgary papers put this headline above a columnist's article: "Flaming 'C' on jersey stands for 'choke.'"

It's easy to understand the frustration in Calgary, but to say the Flames are choking may be a little harsh. For one thing, losing by one goal to the team that looks headed to the Presidents' Trophy -- especially while putting up a 29-17 margin in shots on goal -- hardly reeks of a classic choke. Simply put, Sharks goalie Evgeni Nabokov was outstanding in getting his team the two points.

Additionally, the Flames have been playing for weeks without several injured players, most notably forward Rene Bourque. Teams don't like to use injuries as excuses, but Bourque was one of the Flames' best players early in the season, with 21 goals in the first 58 games.

Beyond this, there's still time for the Flames to turn things around and nail down home ice in the playoffs. Looming large -- in addition to the big game against the Canucks -- is a season-ending home-and-home with the Oilers on April 10-11.

Forward Michael Cammalleri disagreed with the assessment that the Flames are falling victim to late-season nerves.

"I wouldn't call us fragile -- I don't like that tag at all," Cammalleri told the Calgary Sun. "I can see how people can make that assumption, but it hasn't felt like that.

"It would definitely seem like that from the outside looking in -- that Vancouver is pressing and we haven't been as good as far as winning games. But I can honestly say I haven't felt that on our team at all. Guys don't come in and talk about Vancouver. They talk about how we've got to win."

The most important thing the Flames can do between now and the playoffs is get that winning feeling back. Otherwise, it might really start to look like a choke job.

Net hero -- Considering how much they are depending on 39-year-old goalie Dwayne Roloson, the Oilers aren't exactly taking good care of him.

Forty or more shots against have become almost routine, and Saturday night at Anaheim, the Oilers earned a pivotal 5-3 win even though the Ducks pelted Roloson with 54 shots.

Twenty-four hours later, Roloson was back in goal, this time facing a rather pedestrian 21 shots in a damaging 3-2 loss to the Wild, and then 25 shots in a 5-3 loss to Anaheim on Tuesday.

Unless Roloson keels over first, it's safe to say he won't be getting rest anytime soon. The last time he didn't start an Oilers game, there was a different president in the White House. But the way Oilers coach Craig MacTavish sees it, there's no alternative.

"We have to use him, there's no choice," MacTavish told the Edmonton Journal. "That's not discounting Jeff (Deslauriers, the rookie backup), but based on the way Dwayne has played and the situation we're in, there's no choice. Absolutely, virtually zero choice for me. Other people may read it differently, but my mindset on it is he's played great and we need him. We have to go with him. To do anything else would be rife with regret, and I'm not prepared to do that."

That's all well and good, but it certainly can't help Roloson when he's facing two games' worth of shots in a single night.

"We give up a lot of shots," MacTavish told the paper. "A lot of it is protecting the lead; we go into a shell with the puck. We just don't want to make a big mistake so we dump it out and we give them repeated opportunities to create offense. We have to find a way to be a little more selective in terms of our puck movement, be less inclined to just dump it out and let the other team regroup and come back again."

Roloson, of course, deflects questions about whether he's becoming fatigued just as deftly as he deflects opponents' shots. The good news for the Oilers, at least in theory, is four of their last five games are at home, so at least travel fatigue won't be a factor.

Of course, you still have to win the home games, which the Oilers failed to do Sunday against the Wild and Tuesday against the Ducks. For all of Roloson's hard work, it looks as if the Oilers may fall short of the postseason.

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