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State of the Northwest Division: 3rd Edition

This post is a little delayed thanks to a small storm and a trip to the ER in Melville, SK. Please enjoy anyways!

Vancouver Canucks: Contributed by Kevin Madigan of Towel Power

The major pressing issue in Canuckland, once again, is goaltending.

After the Canucks strung together four consecutive losses in the past week, it seemed as though reality had sunk in – the franchise, the savior, the captain – Roberto Luongo was actually injured, and the Canucks were suddenly playing like a lottery team. Worries turned to panic when the Red Wings managed to slide six goals past a half-injured Curtis Sanford on Thursday. His play in relief of Luongo has been questionable, and most are speculating that his good performances have only been possible due to the Canucks’ tight defensive play around him. It became clear that was the case when the Canucks defense started to fall apart early into the 7-game road trip and Sanford was suddenly getting lit up like a Christmas tree. He was pulled late in the game and replaced by an eager Cory Schneider.

Schneider held the fort for the remainder of the game and his strong play continued into the next game versus Minnesota. While he only had to face 17 shots, most of them were quality, and the only one that got past him was into an empty net after he’d been knocked down by his own defenseman.

For the most part, it looks like Schneider has usurped the #1 role in Vancouver until Luongo returns. And if his performance in Minnesota is any indication of things to come, that’s not bad news.

Another big worry for the Canucks has to be the diminished play of what was considered earlier in the year to be the best checking line in the league. Kesler, Burrows and Hansen are not only less effective in their checking roles as of late, but they have completely cooled off from the torrid scoring pace that they had going at the beginning of the year. Vigneault has already applied his patented nonsensical line-juggling and it looks like the line is undergoing some reconstructive surgery.

Luongo’s return is anticipated to be soon before or immediately after Christmas. The key for the Canucks to remain competitive both on the season-long 7-game road trip and in all games until the savior returns is to play a tight defensive game that forces players to shoot on Schneider from the outside. The million dollar question is whether the Canucks can come together and perfect their checking against a series of top level teams as their rigorous December schedule trudges on.

Colorado Avalanche by Shane Giroux of Avs’ Talk

The Avalanche embarked on a three-game roadtrip this week which began in Minnesota, crossed through Nashville and ended last night in Dallas.

Things were looking grim in the waning minutes of the final game. The Avalanche had generated plenty of scoring chances but Marty Turco finally remembered how to stop pucks and kept the Avs off the board.

But with under a minute left, Marek Svatos was able to break through and salvage a point for the Avs.

The Stars went on to hand the Avs their first OT loss of the season and the Avalanche walked away with three of a possible six points on the trip.

It’s a respectable road trip record but one more reminder of the team’s inability to rise above .500 on a consistent level this season.

The Avs are only four points out of a playoff spot which is certainly no cause for panic. But the feeling of perpetual mediocrity this year should have the coaching staff working hard on a fix.

In encouraging news, the offense has started to open up. Though they only scored three goals in their last two games, they continue to skate more freely through the neutral zone and have started to realize that good things really do come true when you head to the net.

Unfortunately it seems every time the offense pushes hard, the defensive effort suffers in some sort of bizarre hockey equilibrium. It’s almost as if the defense strives to be the Joker to the offense’s Batman.

And though I’ll take a win any way it comes, this team needs to find a way to get the offense clicking while playing tighter defense. One goal wins may be exciting in those final minutes, but they’re not as rewarding as finishing a game with a two or three goal cushion.

The Avalanche still have one more game this week, an important divisional game agains the Canucks, which kicks of a drawn out three-game homestand which also sees the Kings in town Tuesday and Blackhawks on Friday.

Anything less than four points on this homestand needs to be viewed as unacceptable.

Calgary Flames by Drew Goyon

I had planned on making this entry about the Calgary Flames’ GLORIOUS sweep of last week’s home-and-home series with Vancouver. I was going to talk about how the Flames played their game to perfection in both games, combining physicality with sound defensive play; how Miikka Kiprusoff had been solid in the crease, even saving the Flames’ bacon a few times; how everyone contributed to the offensive attack, controlling large sections of both games in the Canucks’ zone.

Unfortunately, other things have happened to take my mind off of that particular event.

By now, every hockey fan has heard about the Tuesday-afternoon incident that saw Sean Avery refer to Elisha Cuthbert – the girlfriend of Calgary defenseman Dion Phaneuf – as his “sloppy seconds.” I’m not going to pretend to be morally outraged at the comments; I’m fully aware that worse things are said during every faceoff in every game that’s played in the NHL and every other league. I don’t even think that Avery should’ve been suspended for saying what he said: sure, a hefty fine would be in order, but Avery should have to pay for what he did on the ice.

That’s where everything goes south for me, though. Even if the NHL had allowed Avery to play tonight, it wouldn’t have been possible for Phaneuf or the rest of his teammates to make him eat his words without suffering repercussions from it themselves. Everyone knows that Avery isn’t the type of player who answers for his actions on or off the ice: if a Flame had tried to engage him in a fight, he would most likely have run away or turtled, and Calgary would’ve found itself on the penalty kill. Under the current set of rules, Avery will never have to be accountable for anything that he says or does, and will be able to throw cheap shots – both physically and verbally – with impunity, knowing that nothing can stop him as long as there’s a team willing to take him on.

This is the type of player that the instigator rule has bred.

In the past, a player like Sean Avery would’ve been pulverized by hundreds of enforcers by this point in his career. They would not tolerate the liberties that he takes with his body and with his mouth, and would use his face as a punching bag whenever he pulled something dirty out of his bag o’ tricks: eventually, Avery would have to tone down his antics, or simply choose not to play the game anymore, lest he end up eating all of his meals with a straw by the time he hit 40.

This is not, however, the past. This is the present, and the NHL is a much different place. It’s a place where players like Avery can do whatever they want on the ice. They can make racist, sexist and bigoted comments; they can throw hits to the head and from behind; they can hack and slash to their hearts’ content; and most importantly, they can do all of it without ever having to face the music for it. Sure, they may cross the line enough to get suspended once or twice, but for the most part, all they’ll do is rile up their opponents, thus making them focus more on themselves than they do on winning the game.

The worst part is that this garbage is a disease that’s rapidly spreading within the sport. Every team has at least one guy that can be described as a “pest,” or an “agitator,” or a “shit-disturber” to our more vulgar friends: many clubs have more than one of these, or entire lines full of them. Within the present-day rules, it is an effective way of getting the advantage within a game, as the approach draws penalties and bangs up the opposition. However, just because it works doesn’t mean it’s the right thing to do. It’s unsportsmanlike at its best and cheating at its worst, and in all cases, it’s a glaring example of the lack of respect that has pervaded the game in recent years.

Gary Bettman and his cronies can suspend Sean Avery and his ilk all they want: as a certain famous Bruins fan might say, they can have a great big suspension cakewalk right down the middle of Times Square if they’re so inclined. However, all the tersely-worded memos from Colin Campbell that the sports networks can publish aren’t going to fix what ails this league and this sport. While the soccer moms out there might become faint at the idea of fighting in hockey, the league must understand that it has a choice between preventing scores of cheap shots or a couple of fights a year. In my opinion, the decision is a no-brainer, given which one of these options will keep more players from being injured each year.

The NHL’s players are capable of fighting back – literally – against disrespect. It’s time to allow them the chance.

Minnesota Wild by Eric Burton of Goon’s World

The State of the Wild.
In November the Minnesota Wild went a respectable 8-5. The Wild have started the month of December going 1-1. The Wild have a division game tonight against the hated Vancouver Canucks. It is a must-win game that they need to win if they want to be in the hunt for a playoff berth at the end of the season. During the past eight games the Minnesota Wild have been somewhat erratic going 4-4. Seven of those eight games were played in the comfortable confines of the Xcel Energy Center compiling an unacceptable 3-4 record.
Superstar forward Marian Gaborik remains on the shelf with an undisclosed lower body injury. There seems to be no time table set for his return, and he is not talking to the media either.  As a fan you kind of wonder if Gabby has played his last game for the Wild. If this happens to be the case, so be it. I have become tired of the soft, much injured primadonna from Slovakia.
I hope that the Wild can get some kind of closure to the Gaborik issue soon, because it is becoming a drag on the fans and the team. Currently the Wild are unable to move Gaborik because he is on the injured reserve list. Also, Gaborik is perceived to be a soft player because of the number of games he has missed over the course of the past three seasons. Gaborik is also one of those players that will not play if he’s the least bit hurt.  Michael Russo reported this week on December third that Marian Gaborik actually had skated before the team practice but that was all of the information that was posted on that subject.
Stay tuned for the Marian Gaborik drama as the saga continues. I personally have moved on from Gaborik and believe the Wild should try to unload him as soon as possible.  Maybe they can get a couple of serviceable second line players that are healthy and can play.
Enough of Gabby;  in his absence, the Wild are led up front by Mikko Koivu who is having an all-star season so far going  9-18-29 in 24 games.  It would be an understatement to say that Koivu is hot right now. Mikko has scored 9 points (4-5-9) in the last five games.  Antti Miettnen has been almost as hot as Koivu scoring 7 points (1-6-7) in the last 5 games and 7-13-20 in 24 games this season.  Owen Nolan has started to heat up after being injured at the beginning of the season and has scored four goals in the last 5 games; Nolan has 5-5-10 in 16 games on the season.  After doing little to nothing for the first part of the season Pierre-Marc Bouchard has scored 6 points in the last three games 3-3-6. If the Wild can get balanced scoring from other players besides Koivu, Miettnen and Brunette, then opposition teams will have to check more than one scoring line. Someone is going to be freed up to score goals.
Earlier in the season the Wild had trouble scoring goals. Recently, however, this hasn’t been the case, as the Wild have scored a total of 22 goals in the 5 games.
Edmonton Oilers by Pat MacLean of Black Dog Hates Skunks

Five days of practices and meetings and still the Oilers came out flat against the Kings, falling to a rebuilding L.A. team playing their second game in two nights and, worst of all, putting up little effort in doing so. Quotes from an anonymous player as well as someone in the organization suggested that a change behind the bench might be necessary, though maybe not imminent.

The Oilers hit the road again and for the first time this year answered questions about their commitment with two solid efforts.

Bad breaks against the Blues put them in an early hole and things looked ugly as Visnovsky was knocked out of the game but the Oilers roared back. Usual suspects Sheldon Souray and Ales Hemsky had big games but most importantly for Oilers fans Dustin Penner continued his strong play with the winner as well as an assist and Shawn Horcoff scored and added two assists as he looks to be rebounding from a poor start.

The next day in Dallas saw the usual bad luck but while they did lose the Oilers played well for the second straight game. Another slow start put them two down but they came back twice to tie it with Kyle Brodziak scoring twice as another player looked to shake off a poor start to the season. As usual though it was Mike Modano who had th elast laugh as he scored late in the third on the power play.

The Oilers got their revenge on Dallas on Wednesday. Two pieces of big news. Mathieu Garon, last year’s #1, had his first start in a month and had a solid game, and the Hockey Jesus, Rob Schremp, was recalled to play for the injured Nilsson. Schremp, for one game at least, showed that his fitness and dedication have greatly improved. On top of a nice game he picked up his first NHL point on a goal by Marc Pouliot.

The game was noteworthy as the Oilers put together their third straight strong effort, unheard of this season, and raced out to a great start, up two after the first period, Modano again put a scare into the Oilers as he scored two in the third but Hemsky scored on the most exciting play in hockey and the Cogliano rubbed some salt in it with his seventh as they, like Visnovsky, went one and one. Horcoff also scored and Penner had two assists as the reunited first line from last season continued to look good.

Despite going two and two for the week the Oilers could look upon their improved play and strong effort over the last three games as hopefully good signs of things to come. With a heavy dose of home games after a two game trip to California this weekend the Oilers will look to get on a role as they head into the new year.