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Northwest: Four-way fight to finish line

by Roger Phillips

The Minnesota Wild's Brian Rolston has 53 points in 73 games played this season. Watch Brian Rolston highlights
Win and you're in.

Lose and you're teetering.
This is how it is on a nightly basis in the Northwest Division as the playoff race enters its final few weeks.
Through Wednesday's games, the race seemed almost impossibly tight, four teams jammed into a phone booth or a Volkswagen Beetle.

The Wild have 87 points and are in sole possession of first place. Colorado is three points back, tied with Vancouver and Calgary for the final three playoff berths in the Western Conference.

The positioning is certain to repeatedly change during the final 18 days. It's that tight. It also doesn't help that these teams will be playing divisional games exclusively from here on out.
Mood swings are inevitable.

Recently, the Wild lost five straight games, and the sky seemed to be falling. Then they won two in a row – including Monday's pivotal victory against the Avalanche – and all of a sudden they were in first place and feeling good about themselves.

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"We're in playoff mode right now because we have to be," Brian Rolston told the Minneapolis Star Tribune following the defeat of the Avalanche.

Defenseman Brent Burns added, "It's getting down to crunch time and every game is so big."

Meanwhile, the Avalanche were trying not to make too much of the loss. A win, after all, would have put them in the division lead. Instead, the loss dropped Colorado into the pack -- providing a clear view of potential playoff extinction.

"We did everything we were hoping to do," coach Joel Quenneville told the Denver Post after the loss to the Wild. "You play like that and you'll be all right."

Not if you don't win.

"We've got to find a little more, and find a way to get some points right now," forward Andrew Brunette told the Post.

The Canucks, meanwhile, typify the division with their inconsistency. They have had four-game winning and losing streaks in the past month, along with a three-game win streak and a two-game skid.

"We can be really, really good," center Brendan Morrison told the Vancouver Sun after a crucial victory in Dallas against the Stars. "And on the other hand, we can be pretty inconsistent."
The Flames have been similarly maddening. They'll win a few and look on the verge of putting things together. Then they turn around and hit a skid, raising eyebrows and questions.

In a few weeks, the Flames either could be division champions and a team no one wants to play in the first round of the playoffs. Or they could be on the golf course.

It's unbelievable how it is. You play 72, 73 games and it's so close. It's not fun but it's good for the fans. But it's really tough mentally. - Kristian Huselius
"It is crazy," Flames forward Kristian Huselius told the Calgary Herald. "It's unbelievable how it is. You play 72, 73 games and it's so close. It's not fun but it's good for the fans. But it's really tough mentally."
It won't be getting easier anytime soon. It might even get harder.

Why? Because the Edmonton Oilers, the fifth team in the division, are refusing to die, too.
Who's hot – Jarome Iginla scored three goals in two games, but it didn't help the Flames, who lost back-to-back road games at Washington and Atlanta on March 12-13. … Avalanche rookie right wing David Jones had four points in two games – key victories against Atlanta and Edmonton on March 11 and March 13. … The Canucks notched a crucial 4-3 road win at Dallas on March 15. Markus Naslund and Mike Pettinger both had three points in the victory. … Niklas Backstrom stopped 24 shots as the Wild beat the Kings, 2-0. He made 29 saves March 17 in a 3-1 win against the Avalanche. … The Oilers' Dwayne Roloson, relegated to backup duty most of this season behind Mathieu Garon, picked up wins during the weekend at Phoenix and San Jose. Edmonton was outshot 89-60 in the two wins. Roloson allowed three goals in 125 minutes, and had to go to the shootout for a 2-1 win against the previously red-hot Sharks. … Miikka Kiprusoff made 34 saves as the erratic Flames sank the Blackhawks, 4-2, in Chicago on March 16. … Vancouver's Henrik Sedin snapped a scoring drought with two goals in a 3-1 win against Phoenix on March 17. … Six Oilers had two or more points in an 8-4 win against Phoenix on March 18.
Shootout summary – The Wild were outstanding in the shootout last season, particularly early. This season has been a different story, particularly late in the season. The latest setback was Wednesday night's 4-3 shootout loss in San Jose. It was the Wild's fourth shootout loss in 10 days.
The Oilers won for the 15th time in 18 shootouts this season when they beat the Sharks, 2-1, in San Jose on March 16. Roloson was beaten only once in four shots. Robert Nilsson and Fernando Pisani scored the shootout goals. The Oilers' 15 shootout wins this season are a record for the tie-breaking system that has only been around for three years.
Northwest goaltender shootout rankings based on save percentage:

  W L SA GA Save pct.
Mathieu Garon, Oilers 10 0 32 2 .938
Dwayne Roloson, Oilers 5 3 34 7 .794
Jose Theodore, Avalanche 4 1 24 5 .792
Roberto Luongo, Canucks 6 8 54 15 .722
Josh Harding, Wild 2 1 12 4 .667
Top 5 Northwest shootout artists by percentage (min. 3 attempts):

  Goals Attempts Scoring pct.
Kristian Huselius, Flames 4 5 80.0
Shawn Horcoff, Oilers 5 7 71.4
Jarome Iginla, Flames 5 3 60.0
Trevor Linden, Canucks 5 9 55.6
Robert Nilsson, Oilers 3 6 50.0
Northwest shootout standings:

  W L Pts.
Oilers 15 3 30
Canucks 6 9 12
Avalanche 5 3 10
Flames 3 3 6
Wild 3 7 6

Markus Naslund
Rumor Mill – The Ottawa Sun predicted the Canucks will not re-sign pending unrestricted free agents Brendan Morrison and Markus Naslund in the off-season unless the players agree to sizable pay cuts. Naslund is making $6 million this year, Morrison $3.2 million. … Speculation in Denver is that if goalie Jose Theodore follows his comeback season with a solid playoff run, the Avalanche will be interested in re-signing the prospective unrestricted free agent.
The week ahead – It's down to head-to-head action to determine the division champion, as well as which other Northwest teams will make the playoffs.
The Avalanche and Flames meet twice this week, Thursday in Calgary and Monday in Denver. Colorado also visits Edmonton on Saturday, facing the one division team that is likely to spend the postseason on the golf course. And, Colorado hosts Vancouver on Wednesday.
In addition to the games against the Avalanche this week, the Flames host the Wild on Saturday and the Canucks on Tuesday.
Vancouver, meanwhile, visits Edmonton on Thursday and host Minnesota the following night, before wrapping up the week with the road games against the Flames and Avalanche on consecutive nights.
After the games at Vancouver and Calgary, the Wild visit Edmonton on Monday and host the Oilers on Wednesday. It would behoove the Wild to sweep those games; but it won't be easy.
By week's end, the division's outlook may be a little less murky. More likely, however, it will be as unclear as ever.

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