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Northwest: Canucks making up lost ground against Northwest foes

by Roger Phillips

Roberto Luongo has been key to the Canucks' success in the Northwest Division. He has an 8-0-2 record  when playing agaisnt Northwest teams.
After three solid weeks of head-to-head play in the Northwest Division, the picture is as muddled as ever. The thought that things might be just a little clearer after the long stretch of rivalry games proved to be a foolhardy notion.

The heavy dose of intramural games began Nov. 3 and ended Nov. 24. As play began Nov. 3, Colorado and Minnesota were tied for first place with 16 points, followed by Calgary (15), Vancouver (10) and Edmonton (10).

After Saturday’s games, the Wild had moved into first place with 26 points despite mediocre play in recent weeks. The Avalanche had 25 points, the Canucks had 24, the Flames had 23 and the Oilers had 19.

The Canucks clearly were the big winners the past three weeks. Through Saturday, they were 9-0-2 in Northwest Division games. This enabled them to gain four points on the Wild, five on the Avalanche, seven on the Flames and five on the Oilers. The only problem is the Canucks were an atrocious 2-9 against their non-division foes.

But after the heavy division stretch, the Canucks beat the Blackhawks and Ducks, and by Tuesday night they were all alone atop the Northwest Division.

The Oilers, at 4-9-1, have the worst record against division opponents. The Avalanche (8-5-1) have been respectable. The Wild (6-6-1) and Flames (6-5-3) have been mediocre.

A key to the Canucks’ success against Northwest Division foes has been goalie Roberto Luongo. This does not exactly come as a shock, considering he is Vancouver’s best player. Still, his statistics against the division are much better than his overall statistics thus far this season.

Overall, Luongo had a 2.52 goals-against average and a .911 save percentage through Saturday. But against Northwest foes, he’s 8-0-2 with a 1.86 GAA and a .932 save percentage. Four of the eight victories were by one goal, and two of those came in overtime. The two blemishes were shootout losses against the Oilers, and in one of those games, Luongo and Edmonton’s Mathieu Garon battled to a scoreless tie through regulation and overtime.

“We’re just going to keep riding it and try to take as many points as we can when we have a chance,” Luongo told reporters following one of the division victories, a 4-1 defeat of the Flames on Nov. 18.

The Canucks won the Northwest Division last season, edging the Wild by one point. Interestingly, with a record of 16-13-3 in 2006-07, the Canucks had just the fourth-best division record in the Northwest last season.

This season, though, the Canucks have dominated their division opponents. And as a result, more than a quarter of the way through the season, they look very capable of repeating as division champs.

Who’s hot -- Roberto Luongo is starting to heat up against non-division opponents. He posted a 27-save shutout for the Canucks Sunday in their victory over the Blackhawks. Two nights later, he followed that up with a 25-save shutout of the defending-champion Ducks. … Avalanche defenseman Karlis Skrastins had something to be thankful for on American Thanksgiving, when he scored in a victory over Edmonton. It was Skrastins’ first goal since a 7-4 victory over Phoenix on Dec. 26, 2005. … Four Flames, including Jarome Iginla, had two points in a 5-2 rout of the Avalanche. … Iginla also had a three-assist night in the Flames’ 5-3 loss to the Red Wings on Tuesday. … Defenseman Keith Carney was plus-3 as the struggling Wild got a much-needed 4-3 victory in Nashville. … Dwayne Roloson stopped 38 of 40 shots during regulation and overtime, and then made two more saves in the shootout as the Oilers eked out a 3-2 victory over the Blackhawks. … In the next game, Roloson stopped 36 of 37 shots in a 3-1 victory over the Blue Jackets. Roloson also was fortunate, when Columbus’ Rick Nash fired the puck wide on a penalty shot.

Shootout summary -- The Oilers keep on rolling in the shootout. They have 10 victories overall and six of them have been in the shootout. The sixth was a 3-2 win over the Blackhawks Saturday. Dwayne Roloson stopped Patrick Kane and Yanic Perreault, while Sam Gagner and Shawn Horcoff beat Nikolai Khabibulin to give Edmonton the victory.

Ales Hemsky was the only Oilers shooter to fail to score. The Oilers have thrived in the shootout because of their skill, and Hemsky’s misfire was a rarity for him; he is 4-for-7 this season. Other sharpshooters have been Gagner, a rookie who is 3-for-6, and Horcoff, who is 2-for-2.

The Oilers only have four non-shootout wins this season, but the shootout has allowed them to remain within striking distance in the Northwest Division. Through Tuesday the Oilers had only two non-shootout wins in their last 16 games, one of them Monday’s 3-1 defeat of Columbus.


Rumor mill -- The Denver Post had an intriguing rumor, suggesting the Avalanche might be interested in acquiring goalie Marc-Andre Fleury, with defenseman John-Michael Liles possibly heading to Pittsburgh. … Is the Wild preparing to shake up its roster? According to the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, it’s a possibility. The Wild already have claimed former Dallas tough guy Todd Fedoruk off waivers, because the team wants to increase its physical presence. The paper also speculated that unproductive forward Branko Radivojevic’s job could be in jeopardy and that management is frustrated because of the Wild’s poor play following a fast start. … The status of center Wes Walz, on a lengthy leave of absence for undisclosed reasons, continues to affect the Wild on the ice. … An Edmonton Sun columnist speculated that this could be young defenseman Joni Pitkanen’s only season with the Oilers. Pitkanen only recently returned to the Oilers’ lineup after missing a month with a knee injury. There is some logic to the thought he could be trade bait. Mainly, it would depend on the Oilers falling from the playoff race. If that happened, Pitkanen could be an attractive rental because he is playing on a one-year contract.

The week ahead -- The Oilers and ex-Duck Dustin Penner will be seeing a lot of Anaheim this week. Penner left Anaheim over the summer as a controversial restricted free agent signing that left Ducks GM Brian Burke with bitter feelings toward Edmonton counterpart Kevin Lowe. The Ducks visit Edmonton Friday, and the Oilers travel to Anaheim Sunday. The Oilers continue their busy week Monday in Los Angeles, then return home Wednesday to face Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and the Penguins.


Avalanche defenseman Scott Hannan will face his former Sharks teammates twice this week. Colorado visits San Jose on Friday and hosts the Sharks on Monday. The Avalanche also are in Los Angeles on Saturday and in Columbus on Wednesday.

The Flames open a four-game home stand against the defending Stanley Cup champion Anaheim Ducks Thursday. The Flames, who were a bad road team last year, have been mediocre at home and on the road this season. They play two other games this week, hosting Columbus on Saturday and St. Louis on Tuesday.

The Wild also are at home this week, hosting the Blues on Friday, the Canucks on Saturday and the Flyers on Wednesday.

After hosting the Blue Jackets on Thursday, the Canucks hit the road for games at Minnesota on Sunday and in Chicago on Wednesday.

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