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Northwest: November could be shake-out month

by Roger Phillips / NHL.com

Ales Hemsky and the Oilers will square off against John-Michael Liles and the Avalanche three times during November.

October was just to get the juices flowing.

November, on the other hand, will be the month in which we learn just where this Northwest Division race is headed. The reason: November schedules will be heavy with head-to-head play among division rivals.

November is when we start getting a heavy dose of what old-timers love to refer to as “four-point games,” though that term has lost a little bit of its relevance in an era in which overtime and shootout losers are rewarded with a point in the standings.

Be that as it may, as October faded, nothing had been decided in the Northwest. The Wild, Avalanche and Flames were off to their expected solid starts, but they hadn’t buried anyone. On the other hand, the Oilers were mediocre (which was expected), and so were the Canucks (an early disappointment). But neither of those teams was in a hopeless situation one month in.

Unlike October, however, if a team has a really good November -- or a really bad one -- it will have a big effect on the standings.

In October, no team played a majority of its games within the division. The Oilers played six of 13 against Northwest opponents, the Avalanche played five of 11, the Wild and Flames played five of 12 and the Canucks played only three of 12.

In November, on the other hand, the Avalanche plays 10 of 13 within the division, the Oilers play nine of 13, the Flames play nine of 14, and the Wild and Canucks each play eight of 13.

Under the current scheduling format, teams play 32 of their 82 games -- nearly 40 percent -- against their own divisions. This magnifies the importance of teams’ November schedules.

 

A snapshot of where teams might stand in the Northwest after November can be gleaned from looking at how the teams fared in their limited sampling of October division games.

This is good news for the Avalanche (4-1 against the Northwest in October), Canucks (3-0) and Flames (2-0-3), and not such good news for the Oilers (1-5). The Wild, despite their overall strong start, will need to do better against the Northwest in November than they did in October (2-2-1).

Last season, four of the five teams in the Northwest were above .500 in division play. Surprisingly, the division-winning Canucks were only the fourth-best team at head-to-head play, finishing three games above .500, good for 35 points in 32 games. The Wild, who finished one point behind the Canucks in the standings, led the way with 42 division points.

The Flames, who edged the Avalanche for the final playoff berth in the Western Conference by one point, had 37 division points, while Colorado had 39. Only the bottom-feeding Oilers, with 23 division points, were uncompetitive in head-to-head play.

If the Oilers remain uncompetitive against the Northwest through November, they will find themselves in a big hole. If one of the other teams gets extremely hot in November, it will put itself in strong position. Regardless of how it turns out, the month ahead should be both interesting and revealing.

Who’s hot -- Dustin Penner had a very enjoyable Sunday night against the Ducks. No, he didn’t pick up a point. But Penner, who became an Oiler over the summer when the Ducks didn’t match the offer sheet he received from Edmonton as a restricted free agent, came out of

Penner
Anaheim with a shootout win. He also got his Stanley Cup ring, which was presented to him after the game in Ducks coach Randy Carlyle’s office. Ducks owners Henry and Susan Samueli, as well as General Manager Brian Burke, were on hand. Penner was booed whenever he touched the puck, and of the Ducks fans, he said afterward; “If I was them, I’d be booing, too.” … In the win over the Ducks, Oilers rookie Andrew Cogliano forced overtime when he scored with 87 seconds left in regulation – shorthanded, no less. … The Oilers’ Shawn Horcoff had two goals and four points in a shootout win over the Wild. … The Canucks’ Taylor Pyatt scored his first two goals of the season in a 3-2 win at Washington. … Showing signs of reviving his career, Avalanche goalie Jose Theodore made 39 saves in a 3-2 overtime victory at Calgary. ... Ryan Smyth had the most significant moment of his early days in Colorado, scoring the winning goal 23 seconds into the extra period.

Shootout summary -- No team benefited more from the shootout during the first half of last season than the Wild, who were 5-0 in the shootout in the first 18 games of 2006-07. But this year, the shootout has not been the Wild’s friend. They fell to 0-2 this season in the tiebreaker when they lost, 5-4, to the Oilers. They suffered their first shootout loss earlier in the season, 4-3, to the Kings.

Backstrom

The Wild’s goalies have not exactly excelled in the shootout thus far this season. Niklas Backstrom allowed three goals on three shots against the Kings. Josh Harding stopped only one of three shots against the Oilers. As for the shooters, Petteri Nummelin is 2-for-2; the rest are a combined 0-for-3.

The Wild’s loss was the Oilers’ gain. The shootout win over the Wild was only the Oilers’ second victory in the previous eight games. Dwayne Roloson stopped two of three shots. Ales Hemsky and Sam Gagner scored for the Oilers, and Raffi Torres’ backhand was stopped.

The Oilers recorded their second shootout win of the week Sunday against the Ducks. Mathieu Garon stopped the two shots he faced in the shootout, and Oilers shooters Sam Gagner and Ales Hemsky both scored against Jean-Sebastien Giguere.

Rumor mill -- Like the Oilers’ Ryan Smyth issue a year ago, the prospective status of star goalie Miikka Kiprusoff as an unrestricted free agent next summer was a major issue this season for the Flames. But it is an issue no longer, as the Flames and Kiprusoff agreed

Kiprusoff
Monday on a six-year, $35 million contract that will keep the star goalie in Calgary until 2014. The deal breaks down to $5.83 million a season. This is important, because it leaves the Flames some room to deal with other top future free agents such as restricted-to-be Dion Phaneuf and pending unrestricteds Kristian Huselius and Daymond Langkow. According to the Web site nhlnumbers.com, Kiprusoff’s contract leaves the Flames with more than $3 million in cap space this season. In the end, Kiprusoff accepted less than the $6.75 million Canucks goalie Roberto Luongo averages. He also accepted less than Flames teammate Jarome Iginla’s $7 million average. Kiprusoff averages $6.7 million in the first five years of the extension. The lower average is the result of the 2013-14 final year of the deal, which is scheduled to pay Kiprusoff a starvation-wages figure of $1.5 million. … According to the Ottawa Sun, the Oilers were interested in Ottawa’s Chris Neil, but the Senators aren’t interested in trading their tough guy.

The week ahead -- Four of the five teams in the Northwest are about to begin a stretch in which they play one-quarter of their 32 division games in succession.

Following Thursday night’s home game against the Red Wings, the Flames play eight straight against the Northwest Division – two each against all four opponents. The stretch begins with Saturday’s game at Minnesota.

Following Saturday night’s home game against the Predators, the Oilers also play eight straight against the division, with two against each rival. The stretch begins with Monday’s game at Minnesota.

Following Thursday night’s home game against the Predators, the Canucks play eight straight division games, beginning Saturday at Colorado.

Following Thursday night’s home game against the Blues, the Wild play eight straight against the division, beginning with Saturday’s game against visiting Calgary.

The Avalanche’s schedule is a bit less Northwest-centric. After Sidney Crosby and the Penguins visits Thursday, the Avalanche play five straight division games, starting Saturday at home against the Canucks.

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