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Northwest: Canucks insinuate themselves among elite

by Roger Phillips
When the Vancouver Canucks embarked on their epic 14-game Olympic road trip earlier this season, it seemed as if the goal merely was to make sure they survived and didn't harm themselves in their quest for a playoff berth.
But it's turned out much better than that for Vancouver. The Canucks appear on their way to the Northwest Division title and have positioned themselves as a team that could make a lot of trouble in the postseason for the presumed favorites in the West.
After all, the Chicago Blackhawks and San Jose Sharks have not exactly looked infallible lately, and it remains to be seen whether the Phoenix Coyotes will be able to maintain their magic in the playoffs.
"You always chase the bigger goals and dreams; that's how you get better," winger Alex Burrows told the Vancouver Province. "We'd rather catch the big fish. We're confident because we know we're a good team and can do a lot of good things out there. It's just a matter of doing them every night."
Why have the Canucks persevered this season? General Manager Mike Gillis gives some of the credit to the leadership of a player who was on the team only briefly -- now-retired center Mats Sundin, who was with the Canucks for the second half of last season.
"Mats made a huge impact on the younger guys and you can't underestimate the effect he had," Gillis told the newspaper. "I think guys realize that last year we were extremely close and probably in the driver's seat in the Chicago series. But you have to be physically and emotionally tougher than your opponent to go on and I think our guys have elevated those components this year."
Icy hot -- Defenseman Jay Bouwmeester was supposed to be one of the off-season additions to lift the Calgary Flames to elite status in the Western Conference this year.
A reputation as a guy who could be penciled in for 15 goals earned him a contract that will pay him $6.7 million this season. Being 26, standing 6-foot-4 and weighing 214 pounds didn't hurt, either.
Bouwmeester never made the playoffs in six seasons with Florida. That was supposed to change this season, but it's looking as if it might not. And with a mere 2 goals this season, it's undeniable that he will be one of the reasons if the Flames are on the sidelines next month. Though he's been solid defensively, the lack of offense has been troubling, and he knows it.
"It probably hasn't gone the way I wanted it to offensively," he told the Calgary Sun. "It's been an up-and-down year for everybody."
It seems as much a mystery to Bouwmeester as anyone else why he hasn't been more productive.
"I don't know," he told the Sun. "If I did, I'd do something about it. Sometimes, things just don't really go for you and you can't get a break."
Oil slick -- The Oilers aren't going anywhere this season other than the golf course, but that doesn't mean they can't be a royal pain to teams with higher aspirations.
In the last week, the Oilers went to a shootout before knocking off the Red Wings, who are fighting for their playoff lives. Two nights later, they absolutely pasted the struggling Sharks, dropping them into second place in the Pacific Division. Two nights after that, they stunned the visiting Canucks.
What was truly shocking was how easily the Oilers dispatched the Sharks, whose goalie, Evgeni Nabokov, called it "embarrassing."
The Oilers haven't had much to enjoy this season, between bouts with swine flu, mononucleosis and a seemingly endless string of injuries. But give them credit for trying to give their fans some hope to carry into next season.
"Every year it happens. Teams out of the playoffs get on a winning streak at the end, stealing points away from the teams that need them," Oilers winger Marc Pouliot told the Edmonton Sun. "Everybody wants to play for something. And the guys in here, we just want to win."
Sam Gagner added, "This is as close to playoff hockey as we're going to get this year -- playing teams that are battling for playoff spots. These teams are playing with a playoff mentality and it's an exciting challenge to match it. We want to treat these situations like playoff games and in the future maybe pull from these experiences."
Veteran Mike Comrie may have summed it up best.
"Just because we're in 30th place doesn't mean we can't stick together and play as a group," he told the Sun.
Also on the outside -- The final weeks of the season present a unique opportunity for teams that won't be in the playoffs to get a preview of some of their unknown quantities and to see if they might help in 2010-11.
Last week the Wild signed college star Casey Wellman as an undrafted free agent. But he's not the only one auditioning for a future role in what the Wild hopes will be a more successful season in 2011-12.
Speedy left wing Robbie Earl, a 24-year-old Chicago native, is one of those who has gotten an extended opportunity to prove this season that the Wild should consider keeping him around next year. Though currently in the AHL, in 29 games with the Wild he has scored six goals, and he says he considers his season a personal success.
"Until you're actually given the opportunity day in and day out to play at this level, you don't know," Earl told the Minneapolis Star Tribune. "This year has been a huge building block in my career as far as, 'Can I play at this level?' And I feel I can."
Earl is one of numerous players the Wild has called up from the AHL this season, a season marked by injuries in Minnesota.
Wellman and five other players -- Clayton Stoner, Danny Irmen, Cody Almond, Justin Falk and Anton Khudobin -- have made their NHL debuts this season with the Wild.
"You're always trying to win games up here, so you're trying to bring up the player who deserves it the most," General Manager Chuck Fletcher told the Star Tribune. "But if all things being equal, you want to give different players an opportunity to show what they can do, both for that player and his motivation level, and for us to see how they do at this level. I feel it's very important for players down there to know we're watching them."
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