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Oilers sent reeling by 10-goal 'debacle'

by Roger Phillips
There is nothing like a 10-2 loss on home ice to send the followers of a Canada-based NHL franchise into an absolute tizzy.

Witness the Oilers’ loss by that margin to the Sabres recently at Rexall Place. OK, losing 10-2 is never good, and it makes you wonder exactly what those boys were doing over the All-Star break to put them in a state where they would be so completely humiliated at home, or anywhere, in their first game back.

Still, even with that loss, the Oilers had won five of their previous seven games, and they regrouped three nights later for a 3-1 win in a much more important game against the division-rival Wild. Besides, losing 10-2, or falling 1-0 in the last second of regulation has the same ramifications in the standings -- and arguably, the 10-2 loss is more valuable because it gets everyone’s attention.

It certainly got the attention of the Edmonton media.

"Jeers and self-loathing," blared the Edmonton Sun.

The newspaper compared the Oilers to the Exxon Valdez. Fans at the game reportedly chanted, "We want 10!" The Sabres -- who took a 1-0 lead after 10 seconds and a 2-0 lead after 71 seconds -- politely complied with the request for a double-digit night.

"We weren't ready from the start," Oilers defenseman Sheldon Souray told the Sun. "The game was essentially over in the first few minutes. That was embarrassing, plain and simple. Everything, everything was horrible."

More embarrassments: Drew Stafford, the nephew of Oilers equipment manager Barry Stafford, had a hat trick. Thomas Vanek, who received a seven-year, $50-million offer sheet from the Oilers a couple years back that the Sabres were forced to match, had three points. Sabres General Manager Darcy Regier undoubtedly enjoyed this last tidbit.

Afterward, Oilers coach Craig MacTavish had this to say: "There are plenty of areas of our game plan leading up to the game which are open to criticism. We are not as masochistic as it may have seemed watching the game tonight."

And he called the game a "debacle of monumental proportions," which actually may have been an understatement. MacTavish felt considerably better 72 hours later after the win against Minnesota.

"It was a big game for us tonight, there's no question," he told reporters. "That 10-2 game was hanging over our heads quite substantially. It was good to see the team play so well tonight."

Two nights later, the Oilers lost at home to Nashville, but only by a modest 2-1 margin. They lost 3-1 at home to the Blackhawks on Tuesday night. So the nerves in Edmonton will continue to be frayed.

Crumbling Canucks -- Times have gotten so bad in Vancouver that the Canucks have taken to fighting among themselves. You'd think with Mats Sundin added and Roberto Luongo back from his injury, the Canucks would be getting on a roll. Actually, they are on a roll, just not the type they envisioned.

Players became testy at a practice last week when veteran defenseman Willie Mitchell smacked young, speedy forward Mason Raymond into the boards during a drill. In the course of the play, Mitchell got his stick up and slashed Raymond. Defenseman Shane O'Brien didn’t like this and squared off with Mitchell. The scrum was broken up by teammates.

Afterward, all concerned tried to spin the scrap as just the thing to wake the slumbering Canucks.

"At some point in time you have to find a way to dig really deep, and execute and play with a level of passion and intensity that doesn't matter what happens out there, you're going to find a way to win," Mitchell told the Vancouver Province. "I think if we practice like that for a couple of days, it will be really easy to do that against Minnesota."

Raymond said, "I just dumped the puck in and whatever. It's practice, you're working hard, you're hitting each other, you have an argument and away you go. At the end of the day, we're all friends and we're all here to do the right things. We're sticking together as a group, but it's not easy when times aren't going well. Obviously it's frustrating. We're not doing well as a group and I'm not doing well personally so tempers just flare, I guess."

Luongo, who is the captain of the Canucks, weighed in, too.

"We needed a little emotion in practice, something I haven't really been seeing lately,” Luongo said told the Province. "It was awesome."

But for all the talk, it didn’t translate into a win. The Canucks lost, 4-3, in overtime to the Wild two nights later. And now, coach Alain Vigneault’s job may be in jeopardy, though General Manager Mike Gillis is preaching patience.

"My focus is on getting the team ready and that's all I can say. I get the team ready every game and I let other people speculate about whatever needs to happen."
-- Canucks coach, Alain Vigneault

"My focus is on getting the team ready and that's all I can say," Vigneault told reporters. "I get the team ready every game and I let other people speculate about whatever needs to happen."

The Canucks finally ended their skid Tuesday night with a win against Carolina.

Flickering Flames -- After being one of the NHL’s hottest teams for a couple of months, Calgary has cooled off. The Flames lost Monday night at Colorado, then again 24 hours later at Dallas.

The defense has softened up lately. The Flames allowed 42 shots on goal in the Colorado game, 32 more against the Stars.

Perhaps they’re distracted in Calgary.

After all, there’s already rumbling that the team’s leading goal scorer, Michael Cammalleri, could be a short-timer. The 27-year-old Cammalleri was acquired last summer from the Kings, and he is eligible to be an unrestricted free agent this summer.

"The price tag just keeps going up and up,” teammate Craig Conroy told the Calgary Herald.

There already are rumors about where Cammalleri might choose to go -- home to Toronto or to Vancouver to join GM Mike Gillis (his former agent), or even back to L.A.

In any event, chances are the Flames will get back on track soon, and their focus has to be on this season, not the future. They have a chance to make some noise in the playoffs, after all.

The other thing to keep in mind is that Flames GM Darryl Sutter has a pretty good track record of keeping his star players.
He re-signed Jarome Iginla and Miikka Kiprusoff last season. You’d figure Sutter would do everything possible to keep the Iginla-Cammalleri tandem intact.

Making progress -- Center James Sheppard was the Wild’s first-round draft choice in 2006. It’s taken some time, but the Nova Scotia native is starting to live up to expectations.

According to the St. Paul Pioneer Press, Sheppard’s turnaround following a slow start this season was a Dec. 29 meeting with coach Jacques Lemaire.

At the time of the meeting, Sheppard was minus-10 with 1 goal and 2 assists in the previous 15 games. He’s been an even player with 2 goals and 3 assists in the 14 games since the meeting.

Sheppard told the newspaper Lemaire has given him more freedom recently to play his game.

"I like being coached, and I like learning things," Sheppard said. "But I like to figure things out myself."

Lemaire said, "We accepted what he was doing. Since we accepted that, probably the last six to 10 games, he's been better."

Sheppard is only 20, but he stood his ground during his meeting with the hard-boiled Lemaire.
"Jacques is a pretty intimidating guy; you don't want to disagree with him."
-- James Sheppard
"Jacques is a pretty intimidating guy; you don't want to disagree with him," Sheppard told the Pioneer Press. "But I just said, 'I think this is how I work better.' And he said, 'I can understand that, but this is how other coaches do it, and it works.' And I said, 'Can we try it?' and he said, 'Why not?'

"We tried it, and so far it's been working out."
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