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Northwest Notes: Homecoming

Friday, 11.12.2009 / 11:57 AM / Features
By Roger Phillips
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Northwest Notes: Homecoming
Last Saturday\'s Sharks-Flames game had a distinct playoff flavor to it; the Wild are righting the ship; the Oilers remain alive.
Oilers alive, after all -- When last we checked the Oilers, it was looking like the final five months of the regular season were destined to be prolonged garbage time for a team heading for the trash heap.

A six-game trip loomed and the Oilers were coming off a series of bad losses, injuries were mounting and the Oilers appeared lost. So, naturally, after dropping the first game, in Vancouver, they reeled off four-straight wins, at Detroit, Dallas, Florida and Tampa Bay. They finish the trip Friday at St. Louis.

By thriving on the road trip, the Oilers may have saved their season.

"After a while you just get tired of losing," defenseman Sheldon Souray told the Edmonton Sun. "At some point you have to stop learning lessons along the way. Just go and play -- what are we waiting for?

"Nobody is folding the tent. We certainly haven't played to the level we'd expect, but we've seen a lot of encouraging things."

It's helped that players such as Robert Nilsson and Ryan Stone have returned from injuries and that the Oilers got some clutch goaltending from Jeff Deslauriers in the victories.

Perhaps more importantly, the Oilers are feeling better about themselves.

"Everybody thought we were done," defenseman Ladislav Smid told the Sun. "But I think we're a team full of fighters and we're going to fight for a spot in the playoffs."

Flames feeling confident -- December is way too early to be pondering playoff possibilities or predicting which teams are on the brink of sipping from Lord Stanley's Cup. But every now and then, a December game has a playoff-like feel, even if the implications are not quite as great as those of games played in April, May and June.

Such was the case Saturday when the Flames visited the Sharks. The game had everything -- scraps, great offensive efforts, sensational goaltending.

If it had happened in a key playoff game, Miikka Kiprusoff's unorthodox skate save on Sharks forward Scott Nichol -- he made it flat on his stomach and looking over his shoulder -- would have been remembered as an all-time classic.

"Tough to control, but I tried it and it worked out this time. I was pretty happy," Kiprusoff told the Calgary Herald. "Yeah, a good feeling … but it can go anywhere when you kick it like that."

Teammate Daymond Langkow added, "Unreal. I don't know how he even saw it. He was on his stomach. Obviously, a huge save there. The highlight reel."

For the Flames, the most important aspect of the game was that they left the Shark Tank with a 2-1 victory. Though they would lose two nights later in Los Angeles, the Flames have been dominant on the road and look to be a very tough out when the playoffs arrive in April.

The Sharks noticed.

"Like it or not, we're a measuring stick for everybody," Nichol told the San Jose Mercury News.

And on this night, the Flames -- who lost in seven games to the Sharks in the first round two years ago -- measured up very well indeed.

Wild at heart -- It was easy to write off the Wild when they started the season poorly. After all, they were trying to remake the franchise after parting ways with coach Jacques Lemaire and general manager Doug Risebrough, the men who led the team through its formative years.

But it looks like the rebuilding program may not take as long as anticipated, and the players are giving much of the credit to first-year GM Chuck Fletcher for not sitting still when the Wild plummeted to the bottom of the Western Conference standings.

In recent weeks, Fletcher acquired forwards Guillaume Latendresse, Chuck Kobasew and Andrew Ebbett, and the Wild has responded with a hot streak following their dismal 3-9-0 start. Wild players for years had been accustomed to management that often stood still when moves seemed to be called for.

"Every manager tries to do things they think makes the team better, but this guy is obviously different than what people are used to here in Minnesota," veteran Andrew Brunette told the Minneapolis Star Tribune. "(Fletcher's) gone out and not wasted time and has brought in guys who he thinks are going to help our hockey team. And as a player, that's all you ask for. You ask for your GM or coach to put the team in the best position to win games."

Whether Fletcher's moves will be enough to lift the Wild into the playoffs remains to be seen. But the moves definitely have lifted his players' spirits.

"Players, especially at this level, they know what's going on," Wild coach Todd Richards told the Star Tribune. "They can read, they can see the team and they've got a good feel of what it takes to win. There are teams that don't make changes and players sit back and wonder, 'Well, why wouldn't we try to bring in somebody? We're weak in this area, so why can't we do something to help us out here?' Players know."

The Wild had to make do without one of their new players Wednesday. Ebbett didn't play after suffering a possible concussion Monday. The Wild still beat the Avalanche, 1-0, on a goal by Antti Miettinen and 22 saves by goalie Niklas Backstrom.

Sweet homecoming -- The Avalanche's surprisingly strong start to this season has been impressive enough on its own. But consider this: Through Wednesday, Colorado had played 21 road games, more than any other team in the League. The Avalanche completed a five-game trip Monday in St. Louis with a convincing 4-0 victory. They went 3-1-1 on the trip, and have a 10-7-4 record on the road.

"To go 3-1-1 on the road trip is something to be proud of," first-year coach Joe Sacco told the Denver Post.

Captain Paul Stastny said the team matured as a result of all the travel. He told the Post, "Sometimes road games might be easier than home games when you have a new team and you're coming off a season like last year. It was dangerous, but you know that the schedule was getting more favorable after Christmas. I think all these long road trips helped."

The Avalanche now are 7-3-2 following Wednesday's 1-0 loss to the Wild at Pepsi Center. The Avalanche haven't played more than three consecutive home games yet this season, though they're now in a stretch of seven of eight games at home, with Wednesday's game starting a five-game homestand.

Even more encouraging, they thrived on the road with Peter Budaj in goal while Craig Anderson recuperates from a neck injury. And they continue to get big contributions from young players, including Chris Stewart, who had 13 points in a recent 10-game span.

Anderson, by the way, could be back as soon as Friday against Tampa Bay, according to the Post.

Sour homecoming -- After starting a four-game trip with wins at New Jersey and Philadelphia, the Canucks returned home feeling sour following losses in the third and fourth games of the journey, at Carolina and Nashville.

Penalty killing continues to be the Canucks' biggest deficit. They entered Thursday's games 27th in the League (77.6 percent), and against Nashville, they were exposed. The Predators scored twice on the power play, their margin of victory in a 4-2 win.

"It's something I take a lot of pride in," defenseman Willie Mitchell told the Vancouver Province. "It's something as a group we need to work on."

Maybe some time at home will help. The Canucks start an eight-game homestand Thursday, and the team should find some time the next couple of weeks for some solid practices.

It also would help if the Canucks would do a better job staying out of the penalty box. They were shorthanded three times in the final 12 minutes against Nashville.

"Right now we have guys who can play a lot better, who have to play a lot better," coach Alain Vigneault told the Vancouver Province. "We need to start watching the standings here a little bit more and the importance of these games right now. We're finding ways to lose. Three penalties in the third is not a good way to come back in a game."