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Wild get four days off at worst possible time

by Roger Phillips
The Wild played Sunday with two options spread out before them.

They could turn in a strong performance, after which they would have four days off before playing again -- a good opportunity to boost confidence and prepare for the final push to the playoffs.

Or they could turn in a dismal effort, after which they would have four days off, during which they would spend those angst-filled days wondering what it would take to set things right.

Unfortunately for the Wild, they chose Option B. After bolting to a 3-0 first-period lead against the visiting Senators on Saturday, they melted down and blew two points on home ice, suffering a dispiriting 5-3 setback.

They fell into 10th place in the Western Conference and faced the prospect of being in an even deeper hole by the time they resumed play Thursday at home against the Northwest-leading Flames.

"It's probably the worst timing ever having four days off," center Eric Belanger told the Minneapolis Star Tribune. "You'll see teams playing games and winning and getting points. It's going to be key to come to work ... with a positive attitude. It's crunch time. We have nothing else. We know what we did and we have to make sure it never happens again."

General Manager Doug Risebrough cancelled the scheduled day off Sunday to lecture the troops.

"They've got to get together and get over it," Risebrough said. "I would have worried if we hadn't talked to them. They were down. They were disappointed, but you've got to get through it, you've got to get by that. You've got to get over it and get moving on."

Things are only going to get harder. After the Calgary game, the Wild host the Red Wings on Saturday, then visit Chicago on Sunday. After returning home for a game against the scrappy Kings, the Wild hit the road for nine of their next 10 games (and 14 of 17 away from home) -- a season-defining sequence that very likely will make or break them.

Rol-ling along -- Say this for goalie Dwayne Roloson -- he's been a survivor this season, and he might prove to be the savior for the Oilers.

In the early part of the season, Roloson seemed to be a 39-year-old afterthought, stuck in a three-way goaltending duel with Mathieu Garon and youngster Jeff Deslauriers.

Garon got the bulk of the early playing time, and it looked as if the Oilers badly wanted him to seize the No. 1 job. He played six of the first nine games of the season; Roloson played only twice (losing both) and Deslauriers played once.   

But Garon never established consistency and ultimately was traded to the Penguins. And now, with the Oilers desperately grasping for every point in the standings, they've turned to the veteran who carried them to the Stanley Cup Final in 2006 before being knocked out by a knee injury in the first game of the championship series.

Roloson has played 13 consecutive games and 28 of 30. In the 13-game stretch, which began after Garon was traded, Roloson posted a 7-5-1 record in the stretch and is keeping the Oilers in the hunt.

"You look at the box score and ask, 'How long can he handle it?' I don't know," Oilers coach Craig MacTavish told the Edmonton Journal. "I don't know that he can, but we're not in a position right now, with him playing that well, that we can take him out. A lot of nights, he's our best player."

He had better be, as the Oilers are getting thin on the blue line. Lubomir Visnovsky is out for the season with a shoulder injury, and Denis Grebeshkov is sidelined with a sprained ankle.

Mighty Miikka
-- There have been rumblings the last couple of seasons coming out of Calgary. Basically, the question has been, "What’s wrong with Miikka Kiprusoff?"

The answer: Nothing.

The goalie set such a high standard for himself when he led the Flames to the 2004 Stanley Cup Final that it became impossible for him to live up to the expectations. And he hasn't always had the most tight-knit defense in front of him, either.

This season, though, Kiprusoff has silenced the doubters, and it's no accident the Flames simultaneously have developed into a dark-horse Stanley Cup contender.

And there seems to be at least an outside chance Kiprusoff could make some history this season. Two seasons ago, Devils goalie Martin Brodeur set an NHL record when he recorded 48 regular-season victories. With 25 games left this season, Kiprusoff has won 33 games; no other goalie has won a game for the Flames this season.

Kiprusoff recently posted a 2-0 shutout of the Kings, stopping 36 shots. It was his fourth shutout of the season and the 30th of his career. Afterward, his Flames teammates credited him with the victory.

"We left (Kiprusoff) out to dry again tonight," teammate Michael Cammalleri told reporters. "We have to be better. We cannot put that much pressure on our goaltender. But it just shows you how good he actually is."

Kings coach Terry Murray added, "When he is on, he is one of the best."

Last shall be first -- The Avalanche are in unaccustomed territory -- the basement of the Western Conference. Their playoff hopes at this point are flickering, and they have the look of a team needing an overhaul.

But don't tell that to the defending Stanley Cup-champion Detroit Red Wings. The teams met during the weekend in Detroit, and the Avalanche skated away with a 6-5 shootout victory. Colorado is 3-0 against the Red Wings this season.

"I think we've played well against them, but they're still the defending Stanley Cup champions for a reason," coach Tony Granato said told the Denver Post. "We know when we do play them we have to be at our best, we have to play hard, we have to have 20 guys playing, we have to get good goaltending. It's always exciting to play the champions."

The Avalanche got strong play from a third line centered by Ben Guite, with Ian Laperriere and Cody McCormick on the wings. Laperriere gave Colorado the lead just 16 seconds into the game.

"Outstanding," Granato told the Rocky Mountain News. "They were solid. They worked, they finished checks, they were hard to play against and they scored big goals. They had great starts for us all three periods."

Colorado also got a good performance in goal from Andrew Raycroft. He allowed five shots to get past him, but he stopped 40 others. During the shootout, the Avalanche had to feel confident -- they're 12-1 in their last 13.

Despite the win, the Avalanche don't have any time to relax. After a home victory Tuesday against resurgent Ottawa, they hit the road for six games -- a trip that very well may decide their faint playoff hopes, one way or the other.

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