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Northwest: Liles goes from doghouse to hero

by Roger Phillips
Now that the Avalanche have qualified for the playoffs, one of the players they should thank is John-Michael Liles.

That would not have been predicted a few weeks ago, when the 29-year-old defenseman was a healthy scratch for three consecutive games. But Sunday, when the Avalanche needed him, Liles came through.

Two nights earlier, Colorado had lost at home to Calgary, allowing the Flames to tie the Avalanche for the final Western Conference playoff berth. Against the Sharks on Sunday, Liles scored the winning goal 2:59 into overtime, igniting cheers from the crowd at the Pepsi Center and lifting the Avalanche to a crucial 5-4 victory.

It was only a few days earlier that coach Joe Sacco had been asked by the Denver Post why Liles was being held out of the lineup.

"Like I've said before, I'm going to go with the six defensemen I feel give us the best chance to win," Sacco told the paper.

Liles and Sacco savored the big goal against the Sharks.

"I saw Milan Hejduk coming up the boards when I was out on the blue line, and I just gave it to him and tried to use my skating to cut through the slot," Liles told the Post.

"He made a nice play to get the puck to (Ryan) Wilson, and he made kind of a shot-pass toward me and I tried to tip it and hoped it hit the net. I'm not a guy like Ryan Smyth who knows exactly where the tip's going, so I was just trying to get it on net and get it up off the ice."

"It was a big win for us, especially the way we responded to being down two goals to start the game," Sacco said. "I'm really proud of the way we hung in there and were resilient."

The Avalanche clinched its unlikely playoff berth Tuesday when they defeated the Canucks and the Flames lost at home to the Sharks.
Overheated? -- Perhaps more so than any previous season, the grind of trying -- and failing -- to get to the postseason took a toll on the Flames' Jarome Iginla. So said veteran teammate Craig Conroy over the weekend, following a pivotal loss to the Blackhawks.

According to the Calgary Herald, Conroy was exasperated to see Iginla surrounded by reporters following the defeat because he felt the crucible of the playoff race was getting to the captain, who struggled through a sub-par performance.

"You got to give the guy a break," Conroy told the Herald. "He's got enough on his plate. Maybe we just need to back off. Everyone always expects Jarome to be the savior. But, you know, it's a team -- a team game. I'm sick of everyone on him all the time. He's doing his best out there.

"I just want him to be able to go play three games and enjoy himself and ... not worry about the other stuff."

Iginla's uncharacteristic woes -- 1 goal in the past 14 games -- are symptomatic of the Flames' overall offensive power outage. He's been held without a point in roughly half the games this season, and at an increasingly high rate recently. He was his own worst critic following the Chicago game.

"Myself, I wasn't very good," he told the Herald. "Our line (with Matt Stajan and Niklas Hagman) wasn't very good. We've been in a tough spot. We, unfortunately, didn't create enough, our line. It wasn't good enough. We've been in a rut. We've been trying to get out of it."

The end came for the Flames two nights later when they lost at home to the Sharks.

"We all feel like we failed," Iginla told the Herald afterward. "And we did fail."
Road worriers -- For all their problems this season en route to the polar opposite of the Presidents' Trophy, the 30th-place Oilers really weren't that bad at home. With a 5-4 shootout win against Colorado on Wednesday, the Oilers finished the home portion of their schedule 18-19-4.
It's away from home that the Oilers have suffered. They are 8-27-4 on the road, and they only have won one game on the road since Dec. 11.

The eighth and final road win was in a shootout at Los Angeles on Feb. 11. Strangely enough, before distinguishing themselves with their road ineptitude, the Oilers had a 5-0 road trip that ended with a 5-3 victory in St. Louis on Dec. 11.

After that win in St. Louis, the Oilers were 15-13-4 and looked as if they would remain in the playoff hunt. They are 1-19-2 on the road since that victory against the Blues.

"We're getting into a mental framework where it's almost an expectation we're going to lose," Oilers coach Pat Quinn told the Edmonton Journal following a recent 6-3 loss at Dallas. "Awful start in Detroit (earlier in the week) and we do the same thing here. No surprise why we're in 30th place. We play one good period out of three tonight and half a game in Detroit.

"You don't backcheck, you start turning it over, trying to beat guys one-on-one, you don't clear the front of the net, you lose. It's pretty simple, but it's hard to figure how we haven't figured that out yet."

The Oilers' next road game after the Dallas debacle was a marked improvement -- they lost 3-2 to the Coyotes in a shootout.
Big decision -- Despite missing the playoffs again, the Wild have reason for optimism. Killed by a poor start to the season from which they never recovered, the Wild adapted to a new, more offensive-minded system under coach Todd Richards. And they gained a scorer with the addition of Guillaume Latendresse in a trade with the Canadiens.

It's hard to imagine where the Wild might have been without him. After all, the team's best offensive player, Marian Gaborik, departed after last season.

If there's a problem, it's that Latendresse will be a free agent following the season. And the Wild has to make a tricky decision during negotiations -- is the real Latendresse the 25-goal scorer he's shown himself to be since coming to Minnesota? Or is the 2005 second-round draft choice the disappointing player who struggled during three-plus seasons in Montreal?

It's a question the Minneapolis Star Tribune recently pondered. Latendresse, not surprisingly, thinks the Minnesota version is the real thing. He said he is thriving being out of the Montreal pressure-cooker.

"It's like two worlds," Latendresse told the Star Tribune. "When I was in Montreal, hockey was not even fun. It was a business. I was just playing because I had to. Here, it's different. I've found why I love this sport and remember now why I wanted to be in the NHL one day."

Wild General Manager Chuck Fletcher is aware of the questions about Latendresse.

"The key for Gui is consistency," Fletcher told the paper. "The pace he's scoring this year is at a higher pace than what he's done previously in his career, so the question always is ... is this the real Guillaume?

"Is this a contract-year spurt? Or is this something he can duplicate year after year or even improve upon? Certainly he's got the talent to be an impact player. The question is can he do it year in and year out. None of us know until next year."

Latendresse, again not surprisingly, would like a long-term contract rather than a one-year deal that in theory could keep him motivated.

"I like playing here and I like putting points on the board and winning games," he told the Star Tribune. "We have great fans, so every night I'm going to try to make the playoffs next year. That'll keep me hungry enough. ... I'm a guy who needs confidence to play, and if I've got a one-year contract, it's hard -- you don't want to get injuries. When you're secure, you just have hockey to play."
Back in action -- Defenseman Shane O'Brien returned to the Vancouver lineup Tuesday following four games off the ice for discipline that was more severe than being a healthy scratch but less harsh than being suspended, according to Canucks coach Alain Vigneault.

O'Brien played 15:42 in a 4-3 shootout loss to the Avalanche on Tuesday. He had an even plus/minus and blocked one shot.

Earlier this week, the 6-foot-3 O'Brien spoke of the reasons for his temporary banishment, acknowledging tardiness, being a partier and being overweight -- he endured a boot camp that cut his weight from 235 pounds to 227.

"I don't think I have issues," O'Brien told the Vancouver Province. "I'm a single guy and I like to go out and have a good time every now and then. Do I need to pick my spots better? Maybe, (and) this time of year definitely. When you go through something like that, you look at yourself in the mirror.

"I need to realize how lucky I am to be in the NHL and the privilege it is and you've got to be ready to go every night. Some days, I take that for granted and maybe enjoy myself too much. That's just me, I guess."

There's good reason for the 26-year-old O'Brien to get his act together. He's about to become an unrestricted free agent, and when he's on his game, he's a valuable player worthy of a lucrative contract.

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