If you want to search for reasons why the Vancouver Canucks
have vaulted back to the upper reaches of the Northwest Division after finishing in first place last season, look no further than goaltending.
Roberto Luongo recently posted three consecutive shutouts, both a personal best and a franchise record. Keeping in mind that any goalie’s play is in large part a reflection on the performance of the team in front of him, Luongo’s efforts have been in direct contrast to the goaltending other teams in the division have been receiving. For example:
* In Edmonton, starter Dwayne Roloson had a goals-against average near 3.00, and from a statistical standpoint has been outplayed by his supposed backup, Mathieu Garon. Roloson’s GAA and save percentage are not quite as good as they were last year.
*In Minnesota, Niklas Backstrom took the job away from Manny Fernandez with his brilliant play last season. Backstrom has decent numbers this year, but they aren’t quite as good as 2006-07.
*In Colorado, Peter Budaj and Jose Theodore have goals-against averages approaching 3.00. Much like in Minnesota last season, the young goalie (Budaj) unseated the more experienced one (Theodore). The difference is Theodore remained in Colorado, whereas Fernandez departed Minnesota.
The Avalanche were not expected to be defense-oriented this season, but still, the goaltending is enough of an issue that there have been rumors of a trade that would upgrade Colorado in net.
* Most puzzling of all has been Calgary, where Miikka Kiprusoff in recent years had established himself as one of the best goalies in the NHL, leading the Flames to the Stanley Cup Final in 2004.
This season, Kiprusoff has slumped, even after signing a six-year, $35-million contract extension in October. Kiprusoff has a 2.92 goals-against average, and .886 save percentage.
And after Saturday’s 4-3 home-ice overtime defeat, Flames coach Mike Keenan had seen enough.
“Let’s call a spade a spade,” Keenan told the Calgary Sun. “We should have better goaltending. Period. If we had, we’d be rewarded with a victory tonight.”
According to The Sun, Kiprusoff was to blame on a first-period score by the Columbus Blue Jackets’ Nikolai Zherdev, and later might have done a better job controlling a rebound that Curtis Glencross put in the net 50 seconds before the first intermission.
According to the newspaper, the Flames looked “shell-shocked” to start the second period, and the 2-0 deficit was the reason.
“If you want to say the team was a little bit in a lull, I say it’s because the goaltending tonight wasn’t as good as it should be,” Keenan said. “The team expects more, and we didn’t get it.”
The issue of Kiprusoff’s play didn’t start with Saturday’s loss. Keenan has yanked him three times this season, and just last week, Keenan told The Calgary Herald, “I suspect he will play to his expectations and to the expectations everyone has of him in the hockey industry. I think he would be the first to admit he hasn't done that (yet).”
Kiprusoff acknowledged he has fallen below his own expectations.
“I think I can play better,” he said. “It’s a lot of little things (responsible for his early struggles). I've been working with (goaltending coach) David Marcoux in practice and I believe it’s going to be better.”
But it isn’t completely better yet, even though Kiprusoff stopped 21 shots in a 3-1 defeat of St. Louis Tuesday. Unless Kiprusoff consistently regains his old form, the Flames will continue their unexpected struggles. The recent overtime loss to Columbus provided the Flames with a point that lifted them out of a last-place tie with the Oilers. They fell back into the basement when the Oilers won 24 hours later.
Who’s hot -- The Oilers aren’t relying totally on the shootout anymore for victories. Their 4-0 victory over the Ducks Sunday was their third non-shootout victory in the previous four games. The Oilers notched only three non-shootout wins in the first 23 games. Sunday’s win at Anaheim was their second over the Ducks in three days. Shawn Horcoff had a goal and two
assists as the Oilers knocked off the Ducks, 5-1, Friday. On Sunday, Horcoff had two more points in a 4-0 victory, with Mathieu Garon
making 25 saves for the shutout. So, 9-1 over the defending champs in successive games. Hmm. Either the Oilers are coming along, or the Ducks are in serious trouble. Or both. … The day after the second win over the Ducks, the Oilers beat the Kings, 4-3, in a shootout. … Canucks goalie Roberto Luongo
notched his third consecutive shutout, beating the Blue Jackets, 2-0, last Thursday night. Luongo stopped 26 shots in setting personal and team marks for consecutive shutouts. His streak ended Sunday in a 2-1 loss to Minnesota. Luongo’s string of 210 minutes, 34 seconds of perfect goaltending was ended by Eric Belanger
. Luongo stopped 28 of 30 shots in the game. … Daymond Langkow
, Jarome Iginla
and Adrian Aucoin
had two points apiece against Columbus, but it wasn’t enough in a 4-3 overtime loss on home ice. … The Avalanche blew out the Kings with three third-period goals, 5-2. It was a big night for Colorado’s two key off-season additions. Defenseman Scott Hannan
picked up two assists, and after notching an assist in the first period, Ryan Smyth
scored twice in the third at even strength.
Shootout summary -- The Oilers actually are winning some games before going to the shootout these days. But they showed they still have the magic touch in the shootout Monday when they defeated the Kings, 4-3, in Los Angeles.
Rookie Sam Gagner scored the only shootout goal for the Oilers, and Mathieu Garon stopped all three shots he faced. Gagner is 4-for-7 in the shootout, the four goals tying him with teammate Ales Hemsky for the league lead this season. Garon has stopped 12 of 13 shots in the shootout this season. The Oilers are 7-1 in the shootout.
Rumor mill -- The Oilers ended the era of lack of movement by restricted free agents when they spirited Dustin Penner out of Anaheim last summer. Now they have worries of their own. The Edmonton Journal reported the Oilers are talking to the agent for young defenseman Tom Gilbert, looking to take him off next summer's restricted free agent market. … The Ottawa Sun reported a meeting between Flames GM Darryl Sutter and the representative for defenseman Dion Phaneuf produced no progress toward an extension for the prospective restricted free agent. … The Wes Walz saga ended in Minnesota with the veteran center announcing his retirement after taking a one-month leave to sort out whether he wanted to continue playing. … The Denver Post reported that the struggling Avalanche may consider upgrading their goaltending. The combo of Peter Budaj and Jose Theodore has struggled. Previously, the Avalanche reportedly was interested in Pittsburgh’s Marc-Andre Fleury.
The week ahead -- How is this for a travel schedule: at Nashville Thursday, at home in Vancouver against the Penguins two nights later, then at Los Angeles Monday and at Anaheim two nights after that? In other words, the Canucks are girding for a test of their endurance.
The Flames host the Penguins Thursday and better enjoy the home cooking. After that game, they embark on a six-game trip, with the first two games Sunday in Chicago and Tuesday at Florida.
The Wild is bracing for a five-game trip. The first three stops: Friday at Detroit, Saturday at Columbus, Tuesday at San Jose.
The Oilers face the Blues twice in three games, first Friday in Edmonton, then in St. Louis on Tuesday. The night before the visit to St. Louis, the Oilers will be in Dallas.
The Avalanche host the Flyers Friday and the Blues two nights later before hitting the road for a game in Columbus Wednesday.