Edmonton Oilers: Courtesy of Pat McLean from Black Dog Hates Skunks
The Oilers continue to tread water in a tough Western Conference. Calgary has joined Chicago, Detroit and San Jose as teams that are starting to pull away from the Oilers in a big way and one suspects that with the addition of Mats Sundin that Vancouver is about to also pull away from the pack, of which Edmonton is one.
The Oilers had a nice win against Dallas on HNIC and then followed that up by squeaking by the woeful Islanders as they continued a disturbing trend of playing down to their opposition in the few rare cases when they face a true weak sister.
Then they lost a tough battle to Vancouver on Wednesday night.
A lot of good news for the Oilers to start the new year. Erik Cole has woken up and it appears that Sam Gagner and Robert Nilsson may also be rounding into form. And Andrew Cogliano has been terrific.
On the negative side, Ales Hemsky remains out with a concussion although the latest news on that is positive. He took the power play and Horcoff and Penner’s offence with him as well.
And Horcoff himself is suffering with back problems but is toughing it out.
The club is trying to hang tough until the return of Hemsky and Pisani but it certainly looks like, as always, there will be a sprint to the finish.
Colorado Avalanche: Courtesy of Shane Giroux of Avs’ Talk
When the previous week ends with Tyler Arnason as your #1 center, things have nowhere to go but up.
Tony Granato shuffled his lines on Sunday, sliding Arnason all the way down from the first line to the third line in a move many fans were hoping for.
T.J. Hensick initially filled the #1 center role but everybody was watching to see what Wojtek Wolski would do as the new #2 center.
He did not disappoint.
Though the Avs were shut out 2-0 by the Wild, Wolski looked like a new man.
He now finds himself with three goals in his last three games while centering the Avs top line.
It’s almost enough to make you forget that the move was necessitated by the losses of Joe Sakic and Paul Stastny.
While Stastny is presumably still on track for a full recovery, it’s less clear with Sakic.
After sticking his hand in a snow blower, we all thought Super Joe was resting comfortably on his couch watching a neighbourhood kid clear his walk.
But it turns out he was on an operating table undergoing back surgery for his herniated disc.
Joe always said that he wanted to go out on his own terms but his body might have an opinion before all is said and done.
In the meantime, his team is managing to keep their heads above water.
And who would have thought that Andrew Raycroft would have a hand in it?
With six straight wins and an 8-1-0 record, Raycroft just might be nabbing the starting job from Peter Budaj.
Though his style is far from perfect, he’s getting the wins and that’s something the Avalanche desperately need at the moment.
With Sakic, Stastny, Smyth, Adam Foote and Ian Laperriere out of the lineup, now is not the time to let anyone “find their game”.
It’s time to go with the hot hand.
Calgary Flames: Courtesy of Kent Wilson of Five-Hole Fanatics
With back-to-back 5-2 wins over the best (San Jose) and worst (New York Islanders) the league has to offer this week, the Flames have all the arrows pointing in the right direction. They are now five points up on the Vancouver Canucks for the NW lead and are gradually pulling away from the rest of the mediocre clubs that populate the division (Edmonton, Minnesota and Colorado).
Formerly an achilles heel, it’s been Calgary’s forward depth that has propelled them to their current heights: guys like Rene Bourque, Curtis Glencross, David Moss, Dustin Boyd, Craig Conroy and Matthew Lombardi have formed a formidable secondary and teritary attack behind front line players Jarome Iginla, Daymond Langkow, Mike Cammalleri and Todd Bertuzzi. In fact, the Flames have a league high six players with 10 or more goals (Iginla, Bertuzzi, Cammalleri, Langkow, Moss, Bourque) as well as two others just shy of the mark (Dustin Boyd and Curtis Glencross – both with 8). In addition, nine Flames are on pace to manage 40+ points by the end of the year.
The only potentially disappointing issue in Flamesland currently is the on-going struggles of Dion Phaneuf. The former Norris candidate has just three goals so far (despite leading the team in shots on net) and is second-last on the club in terms of plus/minus (-8). Phaneuf has failed to live up to his fat new $6.5M/year contract at both ends of the rink thus far, and has appeared to labor under the weight of increased expectations at times.
Not that the dry spell has changed Mike Keenan’s percpetion of Phaneuf, or the manner in which he plays him: through the first half of the season, the 23 year old has lead all skaters in average ice-time per game (27:47). No doubt Iron Mike will continue give him every opportunity to get back on track.
Minnesota Wild: Courtesy of Eric Burton of Goon’s World
The Minnesota Wild were mired in a tough stretch during the month of December going 4-9-1. Early on it became very apparent to the fans that the Wild didn’t have enough firepower up front to win on a regular basis. Then to kick off the New Year, the Wild found out that their top star Marian Gaborik was going to be out 10-14 weeks after surgery on his hip.
This revelation was made after a lot of tension between the Wild management and Marian Gaborik, because no one was able to figure out what was wrong with Gaborik. Then it was announced right during the Christmas break that Gaborik was going to be held out of a few games and practice to rest Marian’s beat up and fragile body. Then January 2nd, it was announced that Marian Gaborik was going to have surgery on his hip at the recommendation of his doctor.
Gabby had successful hip surgery on January 5th. There is a lot of speculation that we may have seen Marian’s last days in a Wild uniform. Most of us believe that Gaborik’s time in Minnesota has come to an end. I, like a lot of fans, have grown tired of Gaborik’s self-centered ungratefulness. I don’t understand where Gaborik gets this selfishness, because he has been treated well in Minnesota. I am also bored with Gaborik’s attitude; he won’t play unless he is 100%. Gaborik is one of the most prolific players when he is healthy, but the guy is made out of glass and is easily injured. The fact that he turned down $80+ million to stay with the Wild makes me upset more as a Wild fan. In my mind, general manager Doug Risebrough couldn’t get rid of Gaborik fast enough to make me happy. It’s time for this prima donna to move on.
Fans in Minnesota not happy
To top all of this off, there is a building tension between the Wild management and the Wild fans. The fans actually started booing the Minnesota Wild during a recent game at the Xcel Energy Center. Michael Russo wrote a nice article on the state of the fan base in the Twin Cities on December 31st in the Star Tribune. Russo’s article took the Wild management to task for their mismanagement of the team and basically became the sounding board of what the fans are feeling. There are lot of us that are unhappy with the way the Wild have been managed. To some of us, the only way to make this situation better is to get rid of the head coach Jacques Lemaire as well as Risebrough. The team has grown stagnant under these two men and it is time for change.
Last year the Wild had a chance to get Ollie Jokinen, but Risebrough didn’t want to give up Pierre Marc Bouchard (7-12-19 in 36 games) or James Sheppard (2-6-8 in 39 games) to get Jokinen. For whatever reason, Risebrough deemed these two underachievers as untouchable and not on the trading block. Who in their right mind would make such a statement? These players have been an utter disappointment this season. How would Jokinen look in a Wild uniform? I bet with him in the lineup, the Wild would have won five more games.
Wild’s winning ways
Since December 31th the Minnesota Wild have gone 3-1, losing in a shootout to the Detroit Redwings and beating San Jose, Boston and Colorado. Two of these teams are the best hockey teams in the NHL. During the last four games the Wild have given up a grand total of four goals and shut out their last two opponents. I think the reason for the turnaround is that the Wild players have accepted the fact that they aren’t going to have the services of Gaborik and the return of Owen Nolan to the lineup. If there has been a bright spot to this season it has been the play of Nolan when he has been healthy. The Wild are going to need more than one bright spot if they are going to qualify for the Stanley Cup playoffs.
Vancouver Canucks: Courtesy of Justin Morissette of Towel Power
Sundin is here! Sundin is here! Sundin is here! Let us ignore the Canucks’ middling 3-4-2 record since Christmas, if only for a moment. Just for a second, let’s also forget about their inability to put away teams beneath them in the standings, or even worse, their abysmal shootout record. Put all those things on hold, because Mats Sundin has arrived to save the season! Sort of.
While Sundin will need a little while yet to shake off the rust, his presence alone should help alleviate the Canucks up-front, allowing the Sedins and the Kesler/Burrows unit to draw in against weaker defensive pairings. That’s the optimistic outlook anyway, but after two key penalties against St. Louis and San Jose where the big Swede sat in the box while the opposition potted game-winning goals, Mats is looking more like the goat than the saviour. And in the absence of Roberto Luongo, this is a team that needs either big saves, or to be saved.
Relief has come in the surprising play of Jason LaBarbera, picked up off the scrap-heap in Los Angeles in exchange for a 7th round pick in 2009. His .916 SV% through five games is much better than one might expect from the one they call LOLBarbera. Before the team let him down against St. Louis with their worst effort of the season, he managed to pick up points in all of his first four starts, going 2-0-2. It’s tough to pinpoint the cause of LaBarbera’s strong play – perhaps realizing that his career could be on its last legs has given him a swift kick in the ass. It’s possible that the dream come true of playing for his hometown team is inspiring him. Maybe his size, at 6’3” and 225 lbs, is exactly what the Canucks need in the absence of their 6’3 captain. The reality is likely a combination of all three, but the size issue could spell the end of Curtis Sanford in Vancouver upon Luongo’s return. Playing a style that forces the shooter to the outside, the Canucks have seen Sanford let in softies from far out all too often, simply because he’s too small to cover the net.
The good news is the storm is passing over. Luongo is set to return to the line-up Thursday against the Phoenix Coyotes, at which point he’ll have missed 24 games since going down with an adductor strain. Sami Salo is also set to return to the line-up in the next week, and his point presence is desperately missed on a struggling powerplay. Help is on the way, with plenty of time left to right the ship. If the team can get back to the kind of play that made them red-hot in November, perhaps Sundin will get to play saviour yet.