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Northwest: Wild, Oilers realize importance of fast start

by Roger Phillips

"We've learned the hard way that when you're down, even if you're only down 6 points, it could take you a month to get those 6 points back."
-- Oilers captain Ethan Moreau

Obviously it's early in the NHL season, and a week from now, things could look dramatically different.

But through Tuesday's games, the Oilers and Wild clearly were the class of the Northwest Division. In fact, they were two of a dwindling number of unbeaten NHL teams.

It wasn't hard to see why. Both teams were 4-0, and in those eight combined games, the Oilers and Wild had allowed a total of only 16 goals. No other team in the division had allowed fewer than 22 (the Avalanche in only 6 games).

Special teams also were clicking for the division pace setters. Edmonton scored on 29.4 percent of its power plays in the first four games, and the Wild were almost as good (28.6 percent). The Wild also were perfect on the penalty kill, though the Oilers were not quite so spotless (80 percent).

The Oilers also have been spreading the wealth offensively. Four players were tied for the team lead with 4 points, 9 players had at least 1 goal, and no one had more than 2. The Wild weren't quite so balanced, but 14 players had at least 1 point in the first 4 games, and other than right wing Anti Miettinen with 5 goals, no one had more than 2.

The Oilers and Wild also have things figured out in goal; Mathieu Garon and Nicklas Backstrom have been outstanding for Edmonton and Minnesota, respectively.

None of this means that these teams will run away with the division. Just last year, after all, only 10 points separated the division-champion Wild from the cellar-dwelling Oilers and Canucks. But the starts in Edmonton and Minnesota certainly are promising, especially when juxtaposed with the porous defenses elsewhere in the Northwest. The Canucks have allowed power-play goals 25 percent of the time they've been shorthanded this season, the Avalanche are having serious doubts about starting goaltender Peter Budaj, and Miikka Kiprusoff and the Flames' defense have largely struggled.

If nothing else, all the Oilers have to do to appreciate their fast start is to consider how much they were hurt by last year's poor start. The Oilers finished the season strong, but were unable to close the gap they had created early and ended up missing the playoffs for a second straight season.

"We've learned the hard way that when you're down, even if you're only down 6 points, it could take you a month to get those 6 points back," Oilers captain Ethan Moreau told the Edmonton Sun. "You could win 8 out of 10 games and not gain any ground on a team because of all the overtime (loss) points."
Gabbing about Gaborik -- The Wild, meanwhile, are thriving despite ongoing rumors concerning star forward Marian Gaborik, whose unresolved contract status after this season is sparking speculation that the team could trade him. In fact, it appears to be more than speculation.

According to the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, Wild General Manager Doug Risebrough is actively shopping Gaborik, with the Canadiens a rumored destination. Keep in mind, though, that any deal is likely to be contingent upon Gaborik agreeing to a long-term contract with the Habs or anyone else that trades for him. No team would want to give up a lot early in the season for a player who might turn out to be only a rental.

Adding fuel to speculation is that Gaborik recently has been sidelined with a lower-body injury. For Gaborik to be injured is nothing new; but might the Wild be keeping him off the ice to protect him from a more serious injury that would derail a possible trade? Risebrough has denied such speculation.

Gaborik is one of several top Wild players absent recently due to injury. But the Wild have been winning anyway.

"The trademark of Wild hockey is strong neutral-zone play," winger Andrew Brunette told the St. Paul Pioneer Press. "We have some speed and even without those guys in the lineup, we have enough skill to take advantage of those plays."
Bad habit -- The Flames have made it a habit in recent years to start slowly. They have been below .500 through the first 5 games each of the last four seasons.

Defense and goaltending have been the big problem. And even when the Flames have started well, their finishes have left something to be desired. Over the weekend, they grabbed an early 2-0 lead against the provincial-rival Oilers, only to stumble to a 3-2 loss.

Though Kiprusoff might not be quite as effective as he was a few years ago, defensive positioning has been a major issue. In short, his teammates aren't giving Kiprusoff a lot of help.

"You feel terrible," veteran center Craig Conroy (minus-4) told the National Post. "You're letting the guys down, you're letting Miikka down. Everybody. It's not fun. Right now, it's frustrating. You're disappointed in yourself -- in myself. You just want to be better. You want to help the team win and have that fun feeling."

The Flames may have gotten the message. Tuesday night, they beat the Capitals by a 2-1 margin, with Kiprusoff turning in a solid 30-save effort.

Wellwood's wild week -- Canucks forward Kyle Wellwood had a strange week. He cleared waivers and was sent to the minors last week. But the Canucks' injuries have been piling up, and consequently, the Canucks recalled him this week. Wellwood acknowledged in an interview with the Vancouver Province that he was disappointed in his early season play.

"I am fortunate I played well enough in the NHL earlier in my career to be a guy who keeps getting chances," Wellwood, who had 45 points for the Maple Leafs in 2005-06, told the newspaper. "I played well in exhibition, but I didn't feel like it was obvious I was a top-six player and that has to do with my fitness, my confidence and just getting into the rhythm of things. I just need some more seasoning and more training. Hopefully, I'll end up looking like a good player again and I'll be able to play in this league."
"I just need some more seasoning and more training. Hopefully, I'll end up looking like a good player again and I'll be able to play in this league."
Kyle Wellwood
He's off to a good start. Wellwood had 1 goal and 1 assist for the Canucks Tuesday night, but they lost at Columbus nonetheless.

Hejduk's fast start -- Avalanche forward Milan Hejduk has not always had the reputation of being a fast starter. Last year, he scored only 4 goals in the season's first 13 games. It took him 11 games to get his fifth goal two years ago, 18 games to get there 3 years ago.

This year, however, Hejduk is off to a roaring start, with 6 goals in his first 6 games of the season. Hejduk scored twice in a 5-4 defeat of the Stars on Saturday.

"The whole team, we're scoring a lot of goals. We're clicking," Hejduk told the Denver Post.

Avalanche coach Tony Granato was a bit more effusive.

"Hedgie's shooting the puck well right now," Granato told the Post.

Net result -- The Avalanche have won 3-consecutive games. Andrew Raycroft was in goal for the first 2 of those games, stopping 42 of 48 shots (87.5 percent) in victories against Philadelphia and Dallas. Monday night, Budaj stopped 26 of 29 shots (89.7 percent) as the Avalanche squeaked past the Kings by a 4-3 margin.

"Just happy to get the win," Budaj told the Denver Post. "The guys played well in front of me and made some big penalty kills near the end. It's great to finally get the first one and, more important, keep our winning streak going."

Granato added, "Peter settled down after allowing that first one and played a good game. Sometimes you don't play as well as you want to, but you find ways to win."
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