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Northwest: Tensions running high in Edmonton

by Roger Phillips
Though the Oilers have missed the playoffs two years running, hopes were high entering this season. And when you come right down to it, it is way too early for gloom and doom in Edmonton.

Consider the Oilers are 10-11-2 through 23 games, but they have played an extremely road-heavy schedule to this point. Entering play Thursday, the Oilers have had 16 road games, compared to just eight home games. But that situation will be changing soon.

Still, the natives appear to be getting restless, or at the very least, the rumormongers, who are preying on coach Craig MacTavish after a streak of six losses in nine games.

Changing the mix -- either through a trade or changing the coach -- could be something that becomes regrettably necessary if the Oilers begin to disappear in the standings.

A trade hardly would be a shock, if only because the Oilers have carried three goalies all season. But dumping MacTavish, who guided the Oilers to the Stanley Cup Final in 2006? That would be a major, major move.

According to observers in Edmonton, MacTavish wants his team to play a tougher style than the roster of forwards might be equipped to play. MacTavish sounded very much as if he has felt like he’s talking to a brick wall.

"It's a tough journey, a tough sell for a coach to try and get offensive players to play a more simplistic game, but that's what we need," MacTavish told the Edmonton Journal. "And we have to demand that commitment from everybody. As long as I've been in the game, that's how you prime the well offensively.

"You get in there and you get your hands dirty. You go to the areas where you can get a break offensively. We're trying to preach a power game to guys like (Andrew Cogliano) and Bobby Nilsson, and it's not necessarily their game. But that's where you find it."

The way things are sounding in Edmonton, it might be good for the Oilers to find the elusive "it" soon, for MacTavish's sake.

Glimpse of the future --
With the Canucks, it's unavoidable that goaltending will be the primary topic on a weekly basis. If Roberto Luongo is healthy, the focus is on his brilliance. If he's injured, as he is now, the focus is on whether his replacements are doing the job.

Luongo has a long way to go in his career. But with him sidelined, the Canucks got a glimpse of their potential future Saturday night when 2004 first-rounder Cory Schneider made his NHL debut.

It was a trial by fire -- on Hockey Night in Canada against the division-rival Flames. The Canucks suffered a 3-1 loss, but it wasn’t the fault of Schneider, who made 28 saves.

"We didn't play our best game and 'Schneids' was unbelievable for us," winger Alex Burrows told the Vancouver Province. "The first two periods he kept us in the game and with eight minutes to go, we were still in it because of him."

Schneider made 21 saves before finally allowing a goal when Dion Phaneuf's power-play wrist shot from the right point was tipped in by Daymond Langkow.

"I saw him (Phaneuf) get rid of it and I was kind of looking to one side and it found a way in and that's one thing you have to deal with here -- bigger bodies with more traffic in front of you," said Schneider.

Despite the loss, Schneider relished his first taste of NHL action.

"I'm satisfied in the sense that I answered a few questions about myself and realize I can play at this level, but you've got to be two or three goals better to win that game," Schneider told the Province. "It's good to get the first one under my belt, but there's lots of room for improvement and hopefully the learning curve is still going up."

Schneider got his first relief assignment Monday in a loss to Columbus after Curtis Sanford departed with back spasms. He allowed three goals in 18 shots.

Early comeback? -- Luongo, listed as week-to-week with a groin injury, conceivably could be back sooner than later. Luongo gave a boost to teammates when he surprised them by skating at the end of the morning skate before the loss to Columbus on Monday.

"It's a matter of making sure before I get into practice I'm feeling 100-percent comfortable," Luongo told reporters. "We're gradually building it up. It's a small step today and we're going to try to build the workload every day."

Mind games --
Wild coach Jacques Lemaire is not above pushing motivational buttons with his players -- even if it's a young player like rookie right wing Cal Clutterbuck, who is 21 and was a third-round draft choice in 2006.

A few days before Thanksgiving, Clutterbuck scored his first two NHL goals in a game against Washington. But if you think that won him a grace period from Lemaire, think again.

After going scoreless in the next two games, Clutterbuck was a healthy scratch twice in a row. And Lemaire acknowledged that he was sending a message to the youngster, who had consecutive 35-goal seasons for the Oshawa Generals in his last two years of junior hockey.

"He started to slow down and that was after my comments that he had a spot on the team, so that's why I'm going to try to hold (my comments) next time," Lemaire told the Minneapolis Star Tribune. "(Clutterbuck's) got to be at his best to play regularly, and if he's not, he can't play regularly.

"I don't think it's a question of me not working hard. I just have to keep working hard in practice and hopefully I'll get my chance again."
-- Cal Clutterbuck

"I know one thing. You see him in practice (Monday morning)? He's ready to come back. And he's going to work. He's a good kid, he wants to play, he wants to do well. But it doesn't take much to drop -- less concentration, less focus on little things."

Clutterbuck said, "I don't think it's a question of me not working hard. I just have to keep working hard in practice and hopefully I'll get my chance again."

Incidentally, the Wild's 6-5 loss to Colorado marked the end of a momentous streak. The Wild had been 69-0 in their history when scoring five or more goals before Monday.

Flames resurgence -- Remember a couple of weeks ago when the Flames were a mess? They had lost five of seven games, the last of which was a 6-1 rout at the hands of the Sharks on Nov. 13.

At the time, the Flames bravely predicted that five days between games -- and a boot camp during that break -- would make a big difference.

It turns out it was true. The Flames lost, 3-1, to Dallas on Tuesday night despite outshooting the Stars, 37-23. But before that loss, which looked worse than it was because of a last-minute empty-net goal by Dallas, the Flames had won six of seven games since their hiatus.

The big change has been on defense. The Flames allowed only 12 goals during the seven-game stretch. They allowed 62 goals in the season's first 18 games -- 3.4 a game.

"We really sat down and went over things," defenseman Cory Sarich told the Calgary Herald. "We saw a couple of places where we could make some changes. I think the guys have done a good job of going out there and applying it."

Defenseman Mark Giordano added, "We've definitely got a lot better in our system play and it's paid off and we've put together some wins. We just have to stick with the plan now, because it looks like it's working really good for us."
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