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Northwest: It's the postseason in March

by Roger Phillips

Craig MacTavish and the Edmonton Oilers are
currently sitting at .500, but are nine points out
of a playoff spot in the Western Conference.
Oilers vs. Predators highlights 
The Oilers will need a miracle to make the playoffs; but not so the rest of the teams in the Northwest Division.

Few think of the Northwest as the NHL's toughest division, but from top to bottom, it can be argued that it's the class of the League.

Through Tuesday's games, every team in the division except for Edmonton still had a decent chance of making the Stanley Cup Playoffs with only one month remaining in the schedule. If things fall just right, four of the five teams in the Northwest could be continuing on in April.

It's easy to overlook the Northwest. After all, co-division leaders Minnesota and Calgary were tied for ninth in the overall NHL standings as of Wednesday morning. There's no elite team in the division, just four good, solid teams in the Wild, Flames, Avalanche and Canucks.

Still, those are four teams that could give opponents fits when the playoffs arrive in less than five weeks. The Flames, in particular, and the Avalanche -- if they can ever get relatively healthy and stay that way -- could be daunting playoff opponents.

The question is how many of the four teams will actually still be standing when the playoffs arrive. The Predators and Coyotes maintain real playoff hopes and could squeeze one or two Northwest teams out.

It's easy to criticize the NHL's scheduling format, with so many division games on the schedule; but the final couple of weeks will be a great playoff primer, as teams will play almost exclusively against division rivals.

Here's a team-by-team look at how the final month shapes up for the four Northwest playoff contenders:

Wild (79 points, 15 games left, eight at home) -- Minnesota holds first in the division against Calgary, but only on the basis of more wins. The Northwest champion will be the third seed. The second-place team is likely to be the sixth seed. A March 19 game at San Jose will be the Wild's last non-division contest. In their final eight games, they play each division opponent twice. Four of the final 15 games are against teams almost certain to miss the playoffs.

Flames (79 points, 15 games left, eight home) -- Calgary is 6-3-1 in the past 10 games. The Flames play four straight road games in seven days starting Wednesday, and they finish the season with another four-game trip. The good news for the Flames is they've been better on the road than at home. The last nine games are against the Northwest, including three against the Canucks. Six of the final 15 games are against teams almost certain to miss the playoffs.

Avalanche (76 points, 15 games left, eight home) -- Just when they seemed to be getting healthy, The Avs are all banged up again. This week, Ryan Smyth suffered a concussion and Marek Svatos was lost to a knee injury. On the other hand, they did add a guy named Peter Forsberg without giving anything up in return. The schedule poses a big challenge this weekend: back-to-back games against Dallas. The last nine games are against the Northwest, including three against the Wild. Four of the final 15 games are against teams almost certain to miss the playoffs.

Canucks (74 points, 16 games left, eight home) -- It will be up to goalie Roberto Luongo to carry the Canucks to the playoffs. Offense remains an issue. As for the schedule, the last nine games are against the division. Four of the final 16 games are against teams almost certain to miss the playoffs.

Who's hot -- Niklas Backstrom had a very good trip to the Sunshine State. He made 31 saves, allowing the Wild to edge the Lightning, 3-2, on Feb. 27. Two nights later, he made 32 saves as the Wild beat the Panthers by the same score. Backstrom made 27 saves in a 2-1 overtime victory against the Kings on March 2. Pavol Demitra scored the game-winner. … The Oilers' Alex Hemsky had two goals and an assist in a wild 5-4 win against the Kings on Feb. 28. … After collecting only one point in 14 games, Avalanche defenseman Jordan Leopold had three assists in a 5-2 rout of the Kings on March 1. … The Flames' Jarome Iginla snapped a four-game goal drought by scoring two in a 3-1 defeat of the Coyotes on March 1. … On March 4, the Flames relied on goalie Miikka Kiprusoff, who made 39 saves in a 1-0 win against the Blue Jackets. … The Avalanche won its fourth straight, beating Vancouver 2-1 on John-Michael Liles' first goal in nearly four months and 26 saves by Jose Theodore.

Shootout summary -- Joe Sakic is back after missing a few months following hernia surgery, and he showed the Avalanche what they'd been missing in a 3-2 shootout win at Vancouver on Feb. 27. The extra point the Avalanche got in this game might prove very important at the end of the season.

Sakic forced overtime, scoring the tying goal with only 15 seconds remaining in the third period. Jose Theodore stopped the Canucks' only two shots in the shootout. Meanwhile, after Milan Hejduk was stopped, Sakic scored the only shootout goal the Avalanche would need, although Marek Svatos also scored in the shootout.

Meanwhile, the Oilers were at it again, picking up their NHL-record 14th shootout win of the season, 3-2 against the visiting Blue Jackets on March 2. Goalie Mathieu Garon remained virtually impenetrable. The Jackets were 0-for-3 against him, and opposing shooters have scored only two goals in 32 attempts against Garon this season. Ales Hemsky scored his League-leading sixth shootout goal of the season, the only one Edmonton needed.

Rumor Mill -- The Avalanche was the only really busy

Northwest team at the deadline. The Wild and Canucks made minor moves and the Flames and Oilers did nothing. … Winger Alex Tanguay expressed relief that rumors he would be dealt by the Flames did not come true. The Calgary Sun also reported that the Flames didn't find takers for winger Kristian Huselius, who will be an unrestricted free agent this summer. … The Edmonton Sun reported that the Oilers were interested in trading veteran goalie Dwayne Roloson, who has lost the starting job to Mathieu Garon. But Roloson's $3 million salary did not exactly enhance his marketability. …The Minneapolis Star-Tribune took the Wild to task for picking up Chris Simon and his suspension-riddled resume at the deadline.

The week ahead -- Desperately in need of points to stay in the playoff chase, the Canucks begin the week at home with games Thursday against Nashville and Saturday against St. Louis. Two nights later, the Canucks visit the Kings in a game they have to win against a non-playoff team. Wednesday, things get considerably tougher when the Canucks visit the champion Ducks.

The Avalanche also needs every point it can get, and this week won't be easy. They have a stretch with three games in four days -- at home against the Ducks on Thursday, at home against the Stars on Saturday and at Dallas on Sunday. Then it's off to Atlanta on Tuesday for a one-game road trip.

The Wild starts the week with a quick Southeast swing, visiting the Hurricanes on Thursday and the Thrashers on Friday. The third game in four days will be Sunday at home against the Sharks, after which the Wild has three days off.

The Flames complete a three-game home stand against Nashville on Friday and St. Louis on Monday, after which they hit the road for four straight, beginning Wednesday at Washington.


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