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Northwest: Flames' penalty killing key to success

by Roger Phillips
Special teams allegedly are an important part of winning hockey games. Score on the power play, shut down the opposition when your players are in the penalty box, and according to conventional wisdom, your team will ascend to the top of the standings.

The formula has worked lately for the Calgary Flames, particularly when it comes to killing penalties.

One month ago, the Flames allowed four power-play goals in a 6-1 loss to San Jose. But since then, the penalty-killing unit has been almost flawless, and the Flames' record in the last 13 games is 8-5.

Entering Tuesday night's 6-3 romp at St. Louis, the Flames had killed 38 of 40 power plays since the San Jose debacle. Oddly, the Flames won the game in which they allowed the two goals, and recently endured a three-game losing streak during which the penalty-killing units were 12-for-12.

One thing the Flames have improved is staying out of the box. They were shorthanded nine times against the Sharks, but hadn't been shorthanded more than five times in any game again until Tuesday, when they killed six of the Blues' seven power plays.

"We were second to Anaheim in shorthanded situations and since that game, we've averaged about three power plays against," Flames assistant coach Rich Preston told the Calgary Herald. "It's a lot easier to deal with that. Five, six, seven penalty kills taxes the guys too much.

"You give a team like, say, Detroit, that many chances and I don't care how good your PK is, they're going to score at least one."

The key to success for the Flames -- in addition to solid defensemen like Dion Phaneuf and Robyn Regehr -- has been a fast and versatile group of forwards.

"I think we have a lot more speed up front this year," Regehr told the Herald. "They really make it hard for the power-play units because they get on them quickly and don't give them as much time to set up.

"I also think our guys have done a good job killing the penalty up ice and in the neutral zone. They're really aggressive. … I'm a big fan of killing the penalty in the neutral zone or offensive zone."

Now if only the Flames could find some answers to improve the other half of the special-teams equation. They were 1-for-5 Tuesday against the Blues but are only 2-for-21 in the last five games.

Linden honored --The attention of Canucks fans understandably has been focused recently on the possible addition of a new center, free agent Mats Sundin. At the same time, though, Vancouver fans spent some time this week looking back on the career of another center, Trevor Linden.

It's been 20 years since Linden broke into the NHL, and Wednesday, the Canucks retired his No. 16 jersey. He joined Stan Smyl (No. 12) as the only Canucks to have their jerseys retired.

How big a deal was the retiring of Linden's jersey? Well, the Vancouver Sun published a 32-page special section, if that gives you any idea.

"It's very well-deserved," Smyl told the Globe & Mail when asked about the retirement of Linden's number. "To share that honor with Trevor is a great thrill."

Linden is so revered that Canucks forward Darcy Hordichuk was forced to do some explaining recently after seemingly slighting the retired Vancouver great. Newly added this year, Hordichuk recently said that when Linden was with the team, "not too many guys were celebrating, or were allowed to," after scoring a goal.


"How can you say anything bad about Trevor Linden?" Hordichuk said later when surrounded by reporters. "First of all, I have the utmost respect for Trevor Linden. All I meant is guys like me don't score a lot of goals. When I do score a goal I like to celebrate. The older generation of guys, when they scored, they knew in two or three games they are going to get another goal.

"It upsets me this has been taken out of context. I couldn't sleep last night."

Gushing Oilers -- The other day, Edmonton coach Craig MacTavish was just about gushing over the play of his team in a 3-0 defeat of the Canucks on Saturday.

But that was before Tuesday night's 9-2 humiliation on home ice at the hands of the Blackhawks. It might be awhile before MacTavish decides to lavish praise on his players again, and who could blame him?

MacTavish has been frustrated much of the season by his forwards' lack of willingness to venture into the tough areas of the ice. But he spread the love a bit for one of the rare times this season after the Vancouver win.

"There's a template there now," MacTavish told the Edmonton Sun. "We just have to follow it. Everybody played their role."

Coaches generally do not make excuses when things aren't going well, and MacTavish is no different. There was a major mitigating factor in the Oilers' up-and-down start -- the schedule -- yet MacTavish avoided complaining about it.

Eighteen of the Oilers' first 26 games were on the road. And really, the disappointment at the start of the season has come from the team's play at home, where they were 3-3-2 in their first eight games and now are 4-5-2.

Of the 18 road games at the opening of the year, the Oilers won 10, and there's nothing much wrong with that. So if the Oilers, in their rare early-season home games, had trouble finding jump a lot of the time, it's fairly understandable.

"At times it's hard to manufacture that (jump), and it's tough to play 80 games like that," captain Ethan Moreau told the Sun. "But it's no secret the big wins we've had this year came when we responded to physical teams.

"The problem with us is our lack of physical play and our lack of aggression has come against teams that aren't aggressive or tough. When we play against tough teams we always answer, like Calgary, Vancouver, Anaheim, Philly. We've played some really good games against more aggressive teams."

In that case, the Blackhawks must be pretty non-aggressive because the Oilers turned in an absolute stinker Tuesday on home ice. Chicago blew the game open with five second-period goals, chasing starting goalie Mathieu Garon, who stopped only 16 of the 21 shots he faced.

The Oilers have a lot of games upcoming at home to make up for the road-heavy start of the season. But if they don't shake the cobwebs from Tuesday's debacle, all the home games in the world won't help them.

Snow job -- When 39-year-old Joe Sakic injured his hand in a snow-blower accident last week, it was difficult not to wonder whether this marked the end for the best player in Avalanche history.

After all, Sakic already was to be sidelined indefinitely with a herniated disk in his back, and he spent a good portion of the offseason contemplating whether or not he would come back for the 2008-09 season.

But according to Avalanche General Manager Francois Giguere, Sakic has given his assurance that despite his three broken fingers and achy back, he plans to return this season.

"When I visited him in the hospital, as mad as Joe was, he made it clear he's very determined to come back," Giguere told the Denver Post.

Despite high hopes and an impressive group of forwards, the Avalanche are battling to emerge from the Northwest Division basement, and now faces the long-term absence of their captain.

Let's say Sakic is tan, rested and ready when he returns to the lineup in early March. With about a month left in the regular season, will the Avalanche still be entertaining even remote hopes of reaching the playoffs?

It's not as if the Avalanche were a perfectly constructed team even with Sakic. Defense and goaltending have been big concerns, particularly the erratic tandem of Peter Budaj and Andrew Raycroft.

And no matter how creative Giguere gets, the void created by Sakic's absence is unlikely to be plugged with one or more players of equal value.

"There's no way to go outside the organization and get something the equivalent of Joe Sakic," replied Giguere, who does have some wiggle room to operate under the salary cap.

It will be interesting to see how Colorado responds in the days and weeks ahead. Monday's 3-2 victory at Detroit was a sign that maybe the Avalanche will be all right. But a 5-2 loss the following night in Philadelphia was a reminder of the difficulty the Avalanche has had finding consistency.

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