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Northwest: Early returns are encouraging for Avs

by Roger Phillips
Unfortunately for the Colorado Avalanche, three games do not a season make.

Still, considering that many experts are predicting a bottom-of-the-barrel season for the once-potent Avalanche, opening routs of the Sharks and Canucks, plus a tight 3-2, road loss in Nashville, were quite encouraging.

This is a season in which the Avalanche are making their final break from their storied past. Patrick Roy and Peter Forsberg were long gone coming into this season, but now they've been joined by automatic Hall of Famer Joe Sakic, who called it a career over the summer. Sakic's number was retired on opening night.

Instead of Sakic in Denver, there's now Joe Sacco, the first year coach of the Avalanche.

It's not as if his team lacks talent. The captain is rising star Paul Stastny, and offensive threats like Wojtek Wolski and Milan Hejduk remain. Throw in talented 18-year-old centers Matt Duchene and Ryan O'Reilly, veteran defenseman Adam Foote, and stabilizing new goaltender Craig Anderson, and maybe the situation for the Avalanche isn't so bleak, after all.

The Avalanche clearly needed to improve their goaltending after last season when Peter Budaj and Andrew Raycroft were erratic at best. It looks like they may have done that with the addition of Anderson, a former Florida Panther.

Anderson earned one of the NHL's three stars for the season's first week after posting a Patrick Roy-like .973 save percentage and 1.00 goals-against average in the two opening victories.

"I just don't think too much. I just read and react," Anderson told the Denver Post after stopping 35 Canucks shots for the eighth shutout of his career.

Sacco said, "What strikes me is his confidence. He seems to be very confident in there. Certainly, I can't go into detail about his technique and things like that, but his confidence is very noticeable. He's seeing the puck well and seems square to the shooter."
On the other hand -- The Canucks are supposed to compete for the Northwest Division title, but you'd never know it after their first three games, all losses.

Monday, things got so bad in a 5-3 home-ice defeat to Columbus that star goalie Roberto Luongo was yanked at the end of a stretch in which he allowed goals on four consecutive shots.

"Obviously, I didn't have a great game," Luongo told the Vancouver Sun. "We got ourselves into a hole early and it was kind of like the first couple of games, we tried to battle back. It's tough to make comebacks in this league."

For the first three games of the season, Luongo had a 4.55 goals-against average and a save percentage of .820. But it wasn't all his fault. The Canucks played poorly in front of him, allowing numerous odd-man rushes.

"That's one area we obviously have to correct going forward," defenseman Sami Salo told the Sun. "But I think the key is our execution is not where it should be. ... Individually, we have to bear down and execute. Passes are not on the tape and shooting the puck, we're missing the net a lot. It's just individual stuff. Everyone has to be better."

Canucks coach Alain Vigneault said he's not worried about Luongo.

"Roberto is one of the best goaltenders in the League and definitely one of the hardest workers in this league, so he's going to find his game like he always does," Vigneault told the Sun. "And the other parts of our game are pretty good. Obviously, we're making a few mistakes, but we are generating a lot. And we're not that far away."

Things got better Wednesday night with a 7-1 pasting of visiting Montreal.
'A' game -- In San Jose,  Patrick Marleau is no longer the captain, replaced in the role by Rob Blake.

In Calgary, Jarome Iginla remains captain, but there has been some shuffling among the alternate captains. Dion Phaneuf will share alternate captaincy with Daymond Langkow and other select veterans. Robyn Regehr remains a fulltime alternate captain.

"It's just something that was decided among the coaches," first-year Flames coach Brent Sutter told the Calgary Herald. "We have a lot of good leaders in there who are going to be sharing the letter 'A.' Different guys on the team."

According to the Herald, other candidates to occasionally wear the "A" include Cory Sarich, Craig Conroy, Olli Jokinen and Jay Bouwmeester. Langkow arrived for Saturday's game against the Oilers not knowing he'd be an alternate captain that night.

"You wear the letter with pride," Langkow said.

Conroy told the Herald, "Ever since I've been here, Daymond is a quiet leader. This is nice for Daymond to get the opportunity to wear the 'A.' It makes you have to do a little bit more. I think he appreciates it, just knowing that the coaching staff and everyone on the team thinks of him in that way."

Sutter said the move should not be interpreted as a slap at Phaneuf.

"It's just something to expand our leadership group," he said.
Big changes -- Much of the attention in the division has been on the changes in Minnesota and Colorado. But the Oilers have a new look, too.

They've got 36-year-old Nikolai Khabibulin in goal, finally moving on from Dwayne Roloson. And they've got Pat Quinn behind the bench, moving on from Craig MacTavish, who struggled last season to get the maximum effort from his team.

The Oilers' season began with a 4-3 loss to Calgary that included a disastrous mistake by Khabibulin, who allowed four goals on 21 shots. With less than a minute remaining in the game, he misplayed a loose puck, allowing Calgary's David Moss to backhand the puck into a wide-open net for the winning goal.

"I can't really think about this too much because it's going to carry over to the next game," Khabibulin, 36, told the Edmonton Journal. "I've got to forget about this and look forward. There're lots of games to play. There's going to be mistakes sometimes along the way."

Quinn, whose seasoned coaching staff includes Tom Renney and Wayne Fleming, said he liked what he saw from his team, even if the outcome wasn't what he had hoped for.

"I thought we were tenacious," he said. "I thought we went to the net well."

The Oilers kept going to the net in the season’s second game, and this time they were rewarded with a 5-4 shootout victory Tuesday night over the Stars.
Mild Wild -- The Wild has moved on from the eras of Jacques Lemaire and Marian Gaborik, the defensive-minded coach and the slick-skating offensive dynamo.

But the result of the opener -- a 2-1 loss to Columbus -- didn't look all that different for a Wild team playing without Gaborik. The Wild's offense would drop off dramatically in recent years whenever Gaborik was out of the lineup with an injury, which was often. And the offense was largely absent in the opener and in the first three games, where Minnesota is 1-2 with only 8 goals scored.

In the past, the Wild always knew Gaborik eventually would come back. Now, he's gone for good. Too bad. He probably would have liked the more wide-open style promoted by first-year coach Todd Richards.

The Wild are hoping to replace Gaborik's offense with the additions of players like Martin Havlat, who, like Gaborik, is injury prone, and Petr Sykora.

And in the third period in Tuesday’s home opener, the new look Wild’s offense finally revved up. Havlat had three assists, Sykora scored a goal, and Minnesota rallied from a 3-0 deficit. The Wild wound up beating the Ducks, 4-3, in overtime on a goal by Andrew Brunette. But things weren't good in a 6-3 loss to the Kings Thursday that left Richards angry.

"We had some guys who just weren't ready for the start of the game," Richards said. "And you're not going to win a lot of games if you're starting second periods down by three goals."
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