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Northwest: Tough test

Friday, 13.02.2009 / 2:22 PM / Features
By Roger Phillips
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Northwest: Tough test
Owner Craig Leipold talks of Backstrom\'s and Gaborik\'s futures; Oilers still struggling; Flames\' road woes.
In his first full season as owner of the Minnesota Wild, Craig Leipold gave a state-of-the-franchise interview this week to the Minneapolis Star Tribune.

Leipold admitted it's been a particularly "intense" season, but otherwise was optimistic on a number of fronts. He also indicated he won't diverge from the track record he established as owner of the Predators of not making rash coaching or front-office moves at the first sign of trouble.

Here are some of the highlights from the interview:

* On the future of injured prospective free-agent forward Marian Gaborik, Leipold said re-signing him is "still our only intention. Unfortunately the injury caused everything to shut down. It's our hope that we'll still re-sign him. I think he'd like to play here. We're not done yet."

* On the future of prospective free-agent goalie Niklas Backstrom: "Negotiations are going on. We like Nik Backstrom. He's a great goalie in this League. We want to have him here. He wants to be here. Hopefully we're going to work it out. That's really all I know. I would hope that we could get Backstrom signed, and I'd be surprised if we didn't."

* On GM Doug Risebrough's job security: "Oh, yeah. Doug's fine. This is his team. He's built it. Let's be real honest: It's been disappointing that Gaborik's been hurt. You see how close we are in this race. Gaborik by now would have been worth 25 goals and 50 points. How many games does that win us? And if the answer is just five games, that puts us ahead of our division right now."

* On his continued high expectations for the Wild this season: "I'm looking at this team on the ice right now, and I look at where we are relative to what I would consider the seven or eight teams we're competing with, and we're better than those teams. It's my hope that we make (the playoffs). And I think Gaborik's going to be back in the end. I think that's going to help us. It's going to give us a little bump. I like our position."

Tough test -- With a 6-4 win Tuesday in St. Louis, the Canucks began a stretch of eight games in eight cities. They close their three-game trip with stops in Phoenix and Dallas on Thursday and Friday, come home to face Montreal on Sunday, then embark on a four-game Canadian swing to Calgary, Ottawa, Toronto and Montreal.

They hit the road this week on something of a high after finally winning two games in a row following a dismal one-win-in-11-games skid.

The last home game was a 7-3 rout of the Blackhawks in which the Canucks bolted to a 6-0 second-period lead.

But even in the win there was a bit of disappointment. The Canucks found themselves hanging on for a while after allowing three quick third-period goals. And their defense in the third period left plenty to be desired.

"The key still is to try and find a way to play for 60 minutes," defenseman Sami Salo told the Vancouver Province. "We gave up quite a few chances in the third period and it might have been a different story. Our focus has to be better going ahead here."

Still, the mood around the team noticeably was better after they got the first of their recent consecutive wins, edging Carolina by a 4-3 margin.

"(The win) was really important, it was weighing on everybody," goalie Roberto Luongo told the Province. "The losing and the home-losing streak, as well. It was getting tough to play. But at a certain point you have to go out there and do the job. It was really big for us to get that win out of the way and move on. We were playing a hockey game (against Chicago) without thinking about coming out of a slump.

"It's not as easy coming to the rink when you're losing. Guys are happy now, they're enjoying themselves. When you're more relaxed, you tend to play better on the ice."

The Canucks became even more relaxed when Henrik Sedin gave them a 1-0 lead just 53 seconds into the game. Luongo made 36 saves in the game, a sign that he is regaining his form after his prolonged absence due to a groin injury.

And Mats Sundin is showing signs that he's getting into shape and becoming more comfortable now that he's been with the Canucks more than a month.

Of course, in the wacky Northwest Division this season, this week's rising team is next week's fading squad. It remains to be seen whether the Canucks' wins were a sign of things to come or simply a temporary respite.

Oil change? -- On Dec. 16, the Oilers lost at home to the Blackhawks, 9-2. Exactly six weeks later, they were thrashed at home by Buffalo, 10-2. And 11 days after that, the Red Wings crushed the Oilers in Detroit, 8-3. All of this probably made a 3-2 shootout loss 24 hours later at Minnesota feel like a smashing success.

Actually, the Oilers now are in the business of rating their debacles. And they came out of the Detroit loss feeling better about themselves than they did after losing 19-4 to the Blackhawks and Sabres.

"It's tough for the fans when you lose 8-3, but I don't think it was like losing 9-2 and 10-2, where you could point fingers at guys who didn't compete, but I'd be hard-pressed to find one guy who didn't today," captain Ethan Moreau told the Edmonton Journal.

Of course, you have to wonder if losing 8-3 when everyone is going full throttle is worse than suffering a 10-2 defeat in which several players are little more than passengers.

"We're not as destitute as everybody thinks we are coming out of this game," coach Craig MacTavish said in Detroit. "They picked us apart with point shots and deflections."   

Oilers goalie Dwayne Roloson put his team in an early hole when he slashed Detroit's Dan Cleary in the groin. Brian Rafalski scored on the subsequent power play, the first of five goals Roloson allowed before being yanked after the first period.

"Last time in here they got a five-on-three early, in the first three or four minutes," MacTavish told the Journal, referring to a 4-0 loss at Detroit in November. "Today we're in the box in the first minute. ... They didn't need any more gunpowder coming out of the gate."
 
Flame out -- A not-so-funny thing happened to the sizzling Flames -- they cooled off last week, losing four consecutive games. Nothing seems to last forever in the Northwest Division.

The skid ended with a 6-2 rout of the Canadiens on Monday, but now it's back on the road for three straight, a trip that began in Anaheim on Wednesday. As the trip started, the Flames were only 11-11-1 on the road, not exactly worthy of a team that believes it can win the Stanley Cup.

The Flames look to be headed to the division title, but they play 18 of their final 29 games on the road, and if they advance in the playoffs, they won't have home-ice advantage if they play teams like the Sharks and Red Wings.

The win against the Canadiens looked like a possible turning point.

"We all worked hard," center Matthew Lombardi told the Calgary Sun. "I think that's maybe what we've been lacking the last few games, working hard and working smart. We came out hard in the first period getting pucks deep and to the net, and I think the rest of the game it opened up for us."

GM Darryl Sutter might deserve some credit for getting the Flames refocused. After one of the losses, he blasted his team in the locker room. Coach Mike Keenan said later he didn't mind that Sutter took over a role that normally belongs to the coach.

"It's not an issue," Keenan told the Sun. "You know you're getting an honest message from Darryl. I've worked with him for a long time. I embrace his input and the group learns from it. He brings a different voice and a different perspective -- he's watching the game from above as opposed to ice level. The message was very clear. We know that we want to continue to improve, and it's as simple as that."