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Northwest: Congestion is a common occurrence

by Roger Phillips

Center Paul Stastny is a big reason why the
Avalanche are tied for first in the Northwest.
One year ago at the NHL’s annual Dec. 24-25 break in the schedule, the Northwest Division was remarkably congested, with no way to judge which team would emerge as the division champion.

The Avalanche, Oilers and Wild were tied for first place with 38 points, the Flames had 37, and the Canucks had 35. As it turned out, the Canucks would rise from the cellar to win the division, and the Wild and Flames also would grab playoff spots by the end of the season.

It was not much different at the break this year, as the Avalanche and Canucks had 44 points, the Wild had 42, the Flames had 41 and the Oilers had 35. Thus, once again it’s nearly impossible to figure out how all of this is going to play out. Here’s a team-by-team look nearing midseason at the Northwest teams and their strengths and weaknesses going forward:

Avalanche (21-13-2) -- They’re pretty much as expected – lots of offense, but plenty of goals against, too. The power play has been disappointing and the road record is unacceptable for a team that expects to be among the elite. Joe Sakic has been sidelined with a groin injury and now Ryan Smyth’s neck is ailing. And can they count on Peter Budaj in goal?

Canucks (20-13-4) -- This remains Roberto Luongo’s team, which certainly is a good thing, but the offense is thin when you get past the Sedin twins and Markus Naslund. It might be enough for the Canucks to make another trip to the playoffs. It’s not enough for them to go very deep.

Wild (20-13-2) -- Special-team play has been the Wild’s strength. They have the best power-play percentage in the division, and are second-best in penalty killing. As long as Marian Gaborik stays healthy, the Wild can be trouble for anyone. But keep an eye on the goaltending situation. Josh Harding is making a run at Niklas Backstrom’s starting job. Backstrom got the message and made 47 saves against Detroit on Saturday, but the Wild still lost, 4-1.

Flames (17-13-7) -- Before their recent 6-0 trip, the Flames ranked as one of the NHL’s biggest disappointments. How could a team with Miikka Kiprusoff in goal, Dion Phaneuf on the blue line, Jarome Iginla leading the attack and Mike Keenan behind the bench struggle so badly? But they did. The Flames, however, look right now to be the Northwest Division team best positioned for a second-half surge.

Oilers (16-18-3) -- They were supposed to be in last place, and indeed they are. It is only because of 10 shootout wins that the Oilers have hung around the fringe of the division race. They have non-shootout wins in only six of 37 games. The Oilers do deserve a nod when you consider two of their key off-season additions, defensemen Sheldon Souray and Joni Pitkanen, missed large chunks of time with injuries. The Oilers probably aren’t going to the playoffs, but they don’t seem hopeless, either.

Who’s hot -- Marian Gaborik of the Wild was hotter than anyone has been in years. He scored five goals and also had an assist in a 6-3 rout of the Rangers. It was the NHL's first five-goal game since Sergei Fedorov scored five for Detroit on Dec. 26, 1996, against the Capitals. … Daniel Sedin had two goals and Mattias Ohlund had two assists as the Canucks edged the Stars, 3-2. … Goalie Peter Budaj stopped 36 of 38 shots, but the Avalanche suffered a 2-1 overtime loss at Anaheim. Budaj stopped 21 of 22 shots in a 3-1 defeat of the Canucks. … Milan Hejduk scored twice, and Wojtek Wolski had the winner in overtime as the Avalanche dumped the Rangers, 4-3. … When defenseman Joni Pitkanen scored the only Oilers goal in a 3-1 loss to the Devils, it was his fourth goal in 10 games. … The Flames were sizzling on the road, but not at home. They followed up 6-0 road trip by returning home and losing, 3-2, to Dallas in overtime. In their next game, they lost in overtime again, 1-0 to the Devils, with Miikka Kiprusoff stopping 21 of 22 shots. … A typical Canucks win: A goal from Daniel Sedin (his 15th) with assists from twin Henrik (his 29th) and Markus Naslund (his 18th) and 27 saves from Roberto Luongo. That was what happened in Phoenix on Saturday, but this time the Canucks also needed to go to the shootout, where they picked up a 2-1 victory.

Shootout summary -- The Canucks were 0-4 in the shootout before Saturday, but you could hardly blame them, because three of those setbacks came against the Oilers, for whom the shootout has been a lifeblood.

The Canucks finally won one in Phoenix, edging the Coyotes 2-1 in both the final score and in the shootout. Roberto Luongo stopped three of four shots in the shootout for the Canucks. Meanwhile, Ryan Kesler and Daniel Sedin were stopped by Ilya Bryzgalov, but Trevor Linden and Taylor Pyatt beat the Coyotes goalie, enabling the Canucks to pick up an extra point in the standings before the holiday break.

Here are our third weekly Northwest shootout standings:

Oilers 10-2
Avalanche 2-0
Flames 1-2
Canucks 1-4
Wild 0-2

Rumor mill -- The holiday trade freeze is on but the rumors continue. … The Minneapolis Star-Tribune predicted that prospective unrestricted free agent defenseman Nick Schultz has played so well that he will command $3 million a season if he hits the market. The problem for the Wild is they already have a lot of money tied up in defensemen Brent Burns and Kim Johnsson. … The Denver Post predicted that either John-Michael Liles or Kyle Cumiskey will be gone from the Avalanche next season, and that Liles probably will be the departing defenseman.

The week ahead -- The Flames will play on the road for the first time since their 6-0 road trip when they visit Vancouver Thursday night. After that, the Flames return home for games against the Ducks on Saturday, the Canucks on Monday and the Rangers on Wednesday.

Aside from the games against Calgary, the Canucks host the Ducks on Sunday.

Thursday presents the Oilers' Dustin Penner with another chance to face his former Ducks teammates. A win would give the Oilers a four-game sweep of the season series. After the game, the Oilers head on the road for six games, the first three of which are at Minnesota on Saturday, at Columbus on Monday and at St. Louis on Wednesday.

The latest renewal of the Avalanche-Red Wings rivalry is Thursday at Denver. It's the first of four meetings between the teams this season. The Avalanche host the Kings on Saturday, then have a home-and-home with the Coyotes, Monday in Phoenix and Wednesday in Denver.

The Wild visit Phoenix on Thursday, then have home games against the Oilers on Saturday and the Sharks on Monday. 

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