Looking for drama in the final days of the NHL regular season? Check out the bottom of the Western Conference playoff race, which largely is an intramural scrum involving the Northwest Division.
Sure, the Wild are on the brink of their first division title. But everything else was up for grabs. On Tuesday, the Avalanche wrapped up a playoff berth, but where they will be seeded remained a mystery.
The Flames, meanwhile, were on the verge of clinching a playoff berth, but given their erratic nature, a season-ending plummet in the final days of the schedule could not be ruled out.
The Canucks, meanwhile, were in an even more tenuous position – on the outside looking in with two games remaining. As for the valiant Oilers, their late-season rush to qualify ended with a loss to the Flames on Tuesday night.
How it will turn out is anyone's guess. In the meantime, here's a look at some of the Northwest Division's highlights, and awards for the soon-to-be completed regular season:
Northwest Hart Trophy:
Earlier in the season, we lobbied for Jarome Iginla
to be considered for the League-wide award. We're allowed to change our mind. Nothing against Iginla, but we must give credit to the Wild's Marian Gaborik
for being the division's MVP. Sure, his numbers aren't quite up there with those of the Flames' Iginla. On the other hand, Gaborik has beaten the injury bug this season, and as a result, the Wild look like a division winner. They couldn't have done it without Gaborik.
In the interest of dressing-room harmony, we'll allow the Oilers' Sam Gagner
, Andrew Cogliano
and Tom Gilbert
to share honors. They've grown together as the season has progressed, and give Edmonton a promising future. Cogliano's three consecutive overtime winners recently were particularly noteworthy.
Another award for the Oilers. You have to respect the job done by Craig MacTavish
this season. With a rookie-laden team that lost key veterans Sheldon Souray
, Shawn Horcoff
and Ethan Moreau
to season-ending injuries, the Oilers managed to hang tough all season. Edmonton had every reason to pack it in late in the season, but instead kept battling.
A slight nod to Roberto Luongo
of the Canucks over the Wild's Niklas Backstrom
. The save percentage and goals-against averages of the two goalies nearly are identical. There's one big difference, though: Luongo has played a lot more games than Backstrom. You get the feeling Minnesota would be OK if it had to turn to backup Josh Harding
. On the other hand, without Luongo the Canucks probably wouldn't be playoff contenders.
There's a temptation to shake things up and honor the Wild's Brent Burns
for his fine season. But we'll resist that temptation. Calgary's Dion Phaneuf
plays three more minutes a night and sets the standard for young, two-way defensemen in the League, not just the division.
A special team:
The thing that's narrowly separated the Wild from the rest of the division is its power play and penalty killing. The Wild's two specialty units are the best in the Northwest Division.
Best comeback: Jose Theodore
began the season as a $6-million backup to Peter Budaj
. But Theodore has rediscovered his early-career form and taken over as the starting goalie. Had he not done so, the Avalanche might not have reached the playoffs.
Keen on the playoffs:
Does anyone realize Flames coach Mike Keenan has not coached a postseason game since the Blues were eliminated in the second round in 1996? It looks like that drought will end this month, but it's been a struggle all the way for the Flames, who often look not nearly as good on the ice as they do on paper.
Arturs Irbe "Like Wall" Award: Mathieu Garon
's play in shootouts might be the most overlooked stat of the season. The Oilers' goalie, sidelined recently with an ankle injury, is 10-0 and has stopped 30 of 32 shots in the shootout. The only players to score against Garon in the shootout this season: Vancouver's Trevor Linden
and Ryan Kesler
. It's hard to understand Kesler's shootout goal against Garon; he's a dismal 1-for-9 in the shootout this season.
– Peter Forsberg
of the Avalanche had a big game in a big game – a 5-4 shootout win over the Oilers on March 28. Forsberg had three assists in the game, his second consecutive three-assist performance. He scored the first goal of his comeback April 1 in a 4-2 defeat of the Canucks. … Marian Gaborik
had two goals, including the overtime winner, as the Wild notched a key victory over the Avalanche on March 30. … Two nights earlier, Niklas Backstrom
bested Roberto Luongo
, stopping 28 shots in a 4-0 rout of the Canucks. … The offensively challenged Canucks got a crucial 6-2 victory against the Flames on March 30, with Trevor Linden
scoring twice and Kevin Bieksa
notching three assists. … Dustin Penner
scored his 23rd goal in a 2-1 win at Calgary on March 29 that temporarily furthered the Oilers' impressive and unlikely late-season playoff push. Dwayne Roloson
made 31 saves in the victory. … The Flames' Miikka Kiprusoff
made 28 saves in a 3-2 defeat of the Oilers on April 1 that eliminated Edmonton from the playoffs.
– The Oilers lived by the shootout all season, but really could have used one more shootout win (and one more extra point) when they faced the Avalanche on March 28. Instead, the Oilers suffered a 5-4 shootout loss. Dwayne Roloson
allowed three shootout goals on three shots, to Wojtek Wolski
, Joe Sakic
and Milan Hejduk
. Meanwhile, Robert Nilsson
beat Jose Theodore
, but the shootout loss was assured when Theodore stopped Sam Gagner
– Even though he suffered a season-ending broken left leg in a game at San Jose, defenseman Kurtis Foster
's future in Minnesota appears secure. Both Twin Cities papers reported the Wild intends to re-sign Foster, who could become a restricted free agent this summer. … Prospect Robbie Schremp, a center drafted 25th overall by the Oilers in 2004, denied he plans to sign in Sweden. That said, Edmonton's patience with the slow-developing Schremp may be running thin, the Edmonton Journal
The week ahead
– The presumed division-champion Wild are likely to face a division rival in the first round of the playoffs, either Calgary or Colorado. For the record, the Wild are 1-5-1 against the Flames and 5-2 against the Avalanche. The Avalanche don't have much left to say about their playoff positioning. Colorado doesn't play again until Sunday's finale against visiting Minnesota. The Flames do their final playoff jockeying on the road, at Minnesota on Thursday and at Vancouver on Saturday. The Canucks, looking to squeak into the playoffs, finish the schedule with four straight home games. The last two of those are Thursday against the Oilers and Saturday against the Flames. The Oilers' final game is Thursday at Vancouver.