Northwest Notes: Canucks on the mend
The Vancouver Canucks appear to be on the verge of surviving an early season injury epidemic -- and their gradual return to health couldn't come at a better time.
Vancouver opened a five-game road trip Thursday night at Minnesota, and plays 24 hours later at Dallas. A rout of the Rangers Tuesday night at GM Place lifted the Canucks to two games above .500 and into second place in the Northwest Division.
Considering they've been without injured Daniel Sedin for 12 games this season and goalie Roberto Luongo has been sidelined for a week with a cracked rib, the Canucks' record to this point is reasonably impressive.
The Canucks had reason for concern after beating the Rangers, because Henrik Sedin was limping after taking a puck off the foot. But X-rays were negative and he seemed fine the next day.
Luongo, meanwhile, said he's starting to feel better, and in his absence the Canucks have gotten creditable work from Andrew Raycroft.
"I have made some progress, but I am not going to skate with the team until I am 100-percent pain free," Luongo told the Vancouver Sun. "I have been skating on my own the last couple of days, but nothing crazy. Hopefully sometime next week I will be able to play."
A couple other players might be back before Luongo. Center Ryan Johnson, who has been out with a concussion, is ready to return, and winger Jannik Hansen (broken fingers) is close to joining the lineup for the first time this season.
The Canucks, a respectable road team last season, have won only two of their seven games away from home this season. Their current five-game trip will be a good measuring stick of their progress.
"We haven't had great starts on the road, that's kind of what has hurt us, I think," defenseman Kevin Bieksa told the Sun. "Maybe we're a little bit too loose. I don't know if we're changing our game, but we're not as tight on the road as we are at home. I think that's the mentality we have to have."
Trying to ignore Olympic talk -- Craig Anderson had a solid season in 2008-09 for the Florida Panthers, going 15-7-5 with a .924 save percentage and a 2.71 goals-against average, his best season in an NHL career that to that point had been relatively undistinguished.
On the first day of free agency this past summer, Anderson was signed by the Avalanche, a move to shore up goaltending that had been shaky last season. But it's doubtful even the Avalanche brass could have foreseen the impact the 28-year-old Anderson would have in his first month in Denver.
This week, Anderson was named the NHL's First Star for October. He led the lightly regarded Avalanche, supposedly in a rebuilding mode, to a stunning fast start. Canucks coach Alain Vigneault even called him "the best player in the NHL."
And there could be more recognition to come.
According to USA Today, the Illinois native is very much on the radar of USA Hockey, meaning he could represent the United States in the Winter Olympics in February.
"To wear the jersey for your country, there's no greater honor," Anderson told the Denver Post. "If it just so happens that I get selected, that would be great."
It's more than a pipe dream.
USA Hockey Assistant Executive Director, Hockey Operations Jim Johansson recently told USA Today that Anderson has "certainly played his way into the picture."
Anderson was not among the three goalies invited to Team USA's Olympic evaluation camp -- those invites went to Boston's Tim Thomas, Buffalo's Ryan Miller and Los Angeles' Jonathan Quick. But it's impossible to ignore Anderson's accomplishments. Though backup Peter Budaj was in goal for Wednesday night's 4-1 defeat of Phoenix, Anderson has led the way all season. Through Wednesday's games, the Avalanche were tied with Pittsburgh for the overall points lead in the NHL.
Anderson said he's not thinking about the Olympics.
"My job right now is the Colorado Avalanche," he told the Post. "My job is to make sure these guys play well and that we win games. USA Hockey is a part of the game (and) we'll cross that bridge when it comes.
Shades of Keenan? -- Despite loads of talent, the Calgary Flames struggled with inconsistency last season under coach Mike Keenan.
Under new coach Brent Sutter, however, the Flames bolted to an impressive 7-2-1 start, upstaged in the Northwest Division only by the upstart Avalanche.
But the Flames then were knocked off in consecutive games by Colorado and Detroit. Sutter didn't wait around for his team to sink deep into a malaise before shaking things up.
With four days off between the Detroit loss and a game at Dallas on Wednesday, Sutter had his players do wind sprints and engage in a very physical practice this week. He also chewed out his players.
"That's for us to discuss internally. I don't think we have to comment on what was said," defenseman Dion Phaneuf told the Calgary Sun. "I think the practice showed what we deserved."
Sutter's message was that the Flames can be just as good as the players decide they want to be. But they have to make the commitment.
"That was basically the lesson of the day -- we did it to ourselves," Phaneuf told the Sun. "That's what you get when you're not playing well. ... The words of the day were work hard, learn how to practice hard, try to kick some old habits and get some new thinking in here -- he was trying to drill it into us."
It took a while, but the Flames seemed to respond Wednesday at Dallas. Leading 1-0 after two periods, the Flames fell behind in the third. Daymond Langkow then tied the score with 49 seconds remaining, and captain Jarome Iginla won it 1:25 into overtime with a power-play goal. The Flames were credited in the game with 36 hits, 11 more than Dallas.
Going Wild -- There was no bigger surprise in the NHL in the past week than the Wild's 2-1 victory at Pittsburgh. After all, the Wild entered that game with an 0-8 road record, and the Penguins just happen to be the defending Stanley Cup champions.
The second-biggest surprise of the week might have come in that very same game. Late in the second period, defenseman Marek Zidlicky dropped the gloves to fight Penguins captain Sidney Crosby. It was only the fourth fight of Crosby's career, and just the sixth for Zidlicky.
The Wild, though, want Zidlicky to use his hands to provide offense. In his first five NHL seasons, including 2008-09 with the Wild, Zidlicky has scored 12 or more goals three times. But through 14 games this season, Zidlicky has no goals and 6 assists. He's not alone, however; through the first month of the season, the Wild has been among the NHL's lowest-scoring teams.
Putting the 'O' in Oilers -- Speaking of not scoring much, the Oilers recently were shut out three times in four games, and in the fifth game in that stretch, they scored only one goal. Edmonton was hoping to get its offense in gear Thursday against the visiting Rangers.
Monday's 2-0 loss at Boston might have been the most egregious of the shutout setbacks. An Edmonton Sun writer suggested that Bruins goalie Tuukka Rask "could have been defending a soccer goal and it still would have been 2-0."
"We just didn't create anything," Oilers forward Ales Hemsky told the Sun. "We couldn't break out of our own end. It starts from the back end, we...forwards have to come back harder or something because we couldn't get any breakouts, couldn't get anything off the rush. Tough game."
The Oilers had better figure things out quickly. They're 1-5-0 on the road, and after the Rangers game Thursday, they have a five-game trip that will be followed by five home games and then another six games on the road. They've scored one goal in their last nine periods on the road.
"Our last three road games we've seen our team start pretty well and work hard, then get a little dumb in the middle of the second period," coach Pat Quinn told the Sun. "We're turning the puck over and giving momentum changes to the opposition. You have to work at the defensive side of the game to get your chances. I don't know how many we had tonight, but it wasn't a lot. We had a couple of chances in the third, but nothing good enough to get us back in the game."