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Northwest: Division jam-packed once again

by Roger Phillips
A quarter of the season is over, and what have we learned? Arguably, when it comes to the Northwest Division, not much.

In the other five divisions in the NHL, the leaders had at least a double-digit lead over the cellar dwellers as the week began. As usual in the Northwest, however, things were much more tightly bunched. The Canucks had seized a modest lead, but three of the other four teams were a brief winning or losing streak from a major move up or down in the standings.

We've also learned that Canucks goalie Roberto Luongo is very, very good, that the Minnesota Wild do not score or allow a lot of goals, that Calgary is as wildly erratic as ever and that Edmonton and Colorado have issues with inconsistent goaltending.

Not much new to any of this.

What was news was a groin injury suffered by Luongo in a victory at Pittsburgh Saturday. The man who earlier this month posted three consecutive shutouts subsequently underwent an MRI, and Monday it was announced he was out on a week-to-week basis.

Here's a look at each Northwest team at the quarter pole:

Avalanche -- It's easy to blame injuries for the plight of the Avalanche. Their injury list as the week began included Joe Sakic, Adam Foote and Darcy Tucker. But the fact is the Avalanche weren't exactly clicking before the epidemic. Sakic was the team's third-leading scorer as the week began, even though he'd missed seven of the first 20 games. Last season's key addition, Ryan Smyth, is off to a quiet start. And the goaltending? Put it this way: Peter Budaj and Andrew Raycroft have not made anyone in Denver forget Patrick Roy, and maybe not Jose Theodore, either.

Coming up -- It's early in the season, yet it still has the look of make-or-break time for the Avalanche. Starting Friday at Phoenix, the Avalanche play eight of the next 12 games on the road. Of course, the Avalanche haven't exactly been unbeatable at the Pepsi Center, so perhaps the team will find its game away from home.

Quotable -- "Losing the guys that we've lost in the last week or so is never easy," defenseman John-Michael Liles told the Rocky Mountain News. "When you're struggling to score goals, that doesn't make things any easier. It's not an excuse, it's just something that's kind of compounding the problem right now. We have to find a way to push through that. Score more goals, that's really the bottom line."

Canucks -- They really aren't a one-man team, even though Luongo gets all the ink. Now, with Luongo injured, the Canucks have the chance to prove they are more than a star goalie and a bunch of anonymous extras. The Sedin twins, after all, are enjoying point-per-game seasons, and Pavol Demitra has been a huge contributor since returning from injury. The Canucks also are close to regaining the services of rushing defenseman Kevin Bieksa, who should add some juice to the attack. Imagine where this team would be if youngsters like Mason Raymond and Steve Bernier were producing.

Coming up -- The Canucks just went 3-0-1 on a tough road trip. Now, they're facing a seven-game trip during which they are unlikely to have Luongo. Stops are Columbus, Detroit, Nashville and the other four Northwest Division teams. The reward at the end of the trip: seven of eight at home, plus maybe Luongo's return.

Quotable -- "This is a great challenge for our group," Canucks coach Alain Vigneault told reporters when discussing Luongo's expected prolonged absence. "Our players play real well in front of Curtis (Sanford), and Curtis is an experienced NHL goaltender. He'll do a good job for us."

Flames -- As usual, Jarome Iginla is leading the way, on pace for something close to 100 points. But the other half of the Flames' star contingent, goalie Miikka Kiprusoff, is still searching to regain his past luster. His save percentage is below .900 and his goals-against average is above 3.00. The defensive play of his teammates deserves a portion of the blame.

Coming up -- Things won't be getting any easier. After home games Saturday and Tuesday against Vancouver and Dallas, the Flames play six of their next seven games on the road, with visits to the Rangers, Canadiens, Red Wings and Wild among the stops on the itinerary.

Quotable -- Asked his assessment of his team's play, coach Mike Keenan told the Calgary Sun, "If we were happy, then we'd lower the bar in terms of what we expect from ourselves. For that reason, the answer is 'No, I'm not happy.' I'd prefer that we'd reached some levels of play that would have put us in a little bit higher level than we are right now."
Oilers -- It should tell you something about the shaky state of the Oilers' goaltending situation that they carried three netminders through the season's first quarter. No one has jumped out and claimed the starting job. Not a good sign. Things
aren't much better up front. Winger Ales Hemsky leads the team in scoring, but after him, three of the next four top scorers as the week began were defensemen. Erik Cole, Dustin Penner and Sam Gagner have been invisible.

Coming up -- Fourteen of the first 19 games were on the road, and after completing a two-game homestand Wednesday against the Kings, the Oilers were back on the road for four out of five. But after that, 12 of the next 15 games are at home. The Oilers had best take advantage.

Quotable -- "We'll start holding each other accountable from this point on," captain Ethan Moreau told the Edmonton Journal. "We got through the difficult part of the schedule, so if ever there was an excuse to be tired it was the last few weeks. Now there are absolutely no excuses. We're going to be at home. We have to play that tough, energetic style of hockey."
Wild -- If anyone thought Marian Gaborik's prolonged absence with a groin injury would prove to the Wild just how badly they need him, they were sorely mistaken. The Wild keep on winning without their star forward, seemingly making him more expendable by the day. Sure, the Wild would love his offense in the lineup, but they've proven for years that they can win low-scoring games.

Niklas Backstrom has really been the story here. He's one of the better goalies in the NHL, even if few seem to realize it yet. With Gaborik limited to two games this season, Mikko Koivu has continued to emerge as the Wild's true leader up front. The Wild are waiting for winger Pierre Marc-Bouchard to kick into gear. Last season, he had 50 assists. He has yet to start producing this season. Even so, the Wild are on pace for a 100-point season and a trip to the playoffs. And keep in mind the Wild will improve at some point. Either Gaborik will rejoin the lineup. Or, when he's healthy, the Wild will trade the prospective free agent and upgrade their roster that way.


Coming up -- The Wild's current schedule has them playing eight of nine games at home, followed by four on the road. After that trip, the Wild plays six of eight at home. Thus, December seems a promising opportunity for the Wild to stay near the top of the division – especially if it can find enough offense (Marian Gaborik, anybody?).

Quotable -- "The thing is, goals are not coming easy," coach Jacques Lemaire told the Pioneer Press. "We're getting some chances where we should score, and we don't. Now there's one thing to do: Work harder. When this happens, it's to work harder."

Sanford's time -- With Luongo out on a week-to-week basis, Canucks Nation turns its eyes to Curtis Sanford (and prospect Cory Schneider, who has been called up from the minors).

So far, Sanford has answered the call. He stopped 32 shots Monday in his first start since Luongo's groin injury, and stopped 30 of them. The Canucks won, 3-2, in overtime. And did we mention this came against the defending Stanley Cup-champion Detroit Red Wings?

"It shows that we can battle through adversity because we're dealing with it head-on right now," Sanford told the Canadian Press afterward.

The 29-year-old Sanford is a popular figure in the Canucks' dressing room. He accepts his role as the backup to one of the NHL's top goalies, and is embracing this opportunity to try to fill the void while Luongo recovers.

And his teammates are embracing him "because he has worked so hard," winger Alex Burrows told the Vancouver Sun. "Everybody talks about Lou all the time, that he's the best goaltender. And he is the best goaltender in the world. But there're two goalies on our team and Curtis is one of them. He might not get a lot of recognition because of Roberto, but we know he's a good goalie, we know he works extremely hard and he's a team guy. For that, everyone wants him to win."

Sanford told the Sun he doesn't let a lack of attention bother him.

"I've dealt with naysayers my whole career," Sanford said.

Luongo's injury and a lengthy road trip should also provide an opportunity for Schneider, the Canucks' 2004 first-round pick.

"You try to prepare yourself for (the call) and be ready for it whenever it does come, because it's usually unexpected," Schneider told the Vancouver Province. "You never want to see anybody get hurt, especially a guy like Louie -- he's such a good guy and a great goalie. But this is how opportunities are created."

Heads up -- Avalanche defenseman Adam Foote suffered a frightening hit from Kings youngster John Zeiler during the weekend.

You might think Colorado coach Tony Granato would have been outraged. Instead, he was somewhat ambivalent. During his playing career, Granato took and dished out plenty of tough hits. And he understands Zeiler is a young player looking to keep his spot in the NHL.

"It's tough. Where do you draw the line, and how do you hold yourself back?" Granato told the Denver Post. "You've got not even a split second to (decide) things out there. You can't condone it or you can't say that you want to see that in the game. When you're a kid like that and you're called up from the minors, you've got to run in with the mentality of 'I've got to do everything I can to make an impact in this game.' Again, where do you draw the line?"

Home ice -- It may be now or never for the Oilers. They played 14 of their first 19 games on the road. Now, the schedule shifts and they're going to be playing a lot of home games. The problem is, they've been very ordinary at home, posting only a 2-2-2 record entering Wednesday's home game against the Kings.

"We need to be better at home. We all know that," coach Craig MacTavish told the Canadian Press. "We need some energy here in our own building. You have to have the mentality at the start of the game that you're going to come out and make it difficult on your opponent. We really haven't done that. We're going to be hard to play against. That's our objective."

Rumor mill -- As usual, there's talk about a prospective free agent in Minnesota. But this time, it's not about Gaborik. Instead, it's Backstrom. The Pioneer Press reported that Backstrom, who is eligible to be an unrestricted free agent next summer, has yet to have discussions with the Wild about a new contract. ... Vancouver defenseman Mattias Ohlund continues to be mentioned as a player the Canucks might be willing to deal. ... The Ottawa Sun reports the Canucks might be interested in landing the Senators' Jason Spezza. The paper also says the Flames are shopping defenseman Adrian Aucoin. ... The Sun also listed the Wild and Canucks among teams interested in Senators forward Antoine Vermette and defenseman Christoph Schubert. ... Mats Sundin, anyone?

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