Friday April 3rd, 2009

It was just one win, and it came at the expense of a team that was battered both physically and emotionally. But for the Calgary Flames, their 2-1 victory over Dallas on Thursday night still counted for the two points that put them back on top of the Northwest Division.

At least for one night.

While most fans are glued to the adventures of the teams at the hind end of each conference, to see which will be the last of eight to cross the finish line, they're missing the most compelling race in hockey: the battle for the Northwest, the only division where the title is truly up for grabs.

Of course, if the Flames had taken care of business, this thing would have been decided long ago.

Not to take credit away from the hard-charging Canucks, but the reality is that the Flames have spent the last two months squandering the 13-point lead they once held over Vancouver. With just five wins in their last 13, they're struggling like Joe Namath in a sideline interview with Suzy Kolber.

No wonder the "C stands for Choke" gag is back in vogue.

Funks are one thing. Every team has them. It's the timing of this one that's leading to calls for the late-season canning of coach Mike Keenan (good thing Lou Lamoriello's not calling the shots) and the deportation of Elisha Cuthbert, the young actress whose considerable charms have been blamed for the obvious drop-off in the play of Dion Phaneuf.

Both men deserve their share of the brickbats, but the big defender makes for the easiest target. Coming into the season as a Norris favorite (no need to throw any pundits under the bus for that call), he's fallen miserably short of expectations. The physical play is still there -- not surprising, since that appears to be his favorite part of the game. But Phaneuf's inability to make good decisions with the puck has led to too many turnovers and derailed too many offensive sorties. Worse, his seemingly carefree positioning away from the puck has made him easy for opponents to exploit, a fact evidenced by his grisly minus-11 rating. In his third season, this big dog is all bark, no bite.

But Phaneuf is not the only Flame flickering to the finish. You know things are bad when there's excitement over Jarome Iginla scoring in consecutive games, something he hadn't done in a month. Mike Cammalleri has just two goals in his last 13. Todd Bertuzzi, two in 15. No wonder the power play is about to be delisted like Charter Communications. It's 0-for-19 over the last five games.

Injuries have played a factor in the slide. Rene Bourque, expected back for the playoffs, would have helped the struggling offense, as would Mark Giordano, but the truth is that almost every contender is dealing with similar issues. While teams like the Sharks and Blues have flourished with key players on the sidelines, the Flames' stand-ins haven't risen to the challenge.

The Canucks, meanwhile, continue to build momentum, Thursday night's shootout loss to the Ducks notwithstanding. They've thrived in the role of hunter, tracking down the Flames with ruthless efficiency.

Vancouver has been on a tear since the break: 14-4-2 in their last 20. While much of the credit is heaped on captain Roberto Luongo and the sizzling Sedins (43 points between them over the last month), the real heroes of the charge have been grinders/scorers Ryan Kesler and Alex Burrows. Kesler's magnificent two-way play ranks him among the leading candidates for the Selke, and Burrows is excelling at a style that begs for the creation of a new hunk of hardware. The Ken Linseman Trophy, maybe? The duo has set the tone for a squad that looks like it can't wait to get to the games that count.

Calgary simply looks like they're simply running out of feet to shoot.

What makes it all the more frustrating is that the Flames have been here before. Last season, Calgary won just six of its final 13 games to fall out of the division title hunt and nearly out of the top eight altogether. And while they played arguably their best hockey in that first round series against San Jose, these late-season slides open them up wide to criticism. At this point, they've got five games left to prove they're not too delicate mentally to live up to late-season pressure.

As Michael Farber pointed out here earlier this week, you can't read too much into the remaining schedule. Still, the Flames look to be at a disadvantage. After Thursday's game in Dallas, they go Friday against the Wild. Their final four matches are split between another pair of back-to-back affairs. That arrangement hasn't been kind to Calgary so far this season, with the Flames winning just six of 22 back-to-back contests.

Always on the cusp of breaking through, the Flames have been first-round casualties three springs running. Stumbling into the tournament makes a fourth early exit all the more likely.

The Canucks don't need to win the division. It'd be nice, but they've earned their psychological edge heading into the postseason.

The big question is: with five games remaining, can the Flames find theirs?

When they were officially eliminated from playoff contention last week, the Coyotes set a particularly dubious mark: 21 consecutive seasons without a playoff series win. The franchise, which has yet to win a series since moving to Phoenix, last advanced to the second round in 1987 when the then-Winnipeg Jets were swept by Edmonton after they beat Calgary. The previous stretch of futility was set by the Rangers, who failed to win a series from 1951 to 1970.

The Jets/Coyotes have earned a berth in the postseason 16 times in their 30-year history, but have advanced just twice. See? It's not so bad to be an Islanders fan!

As embarrassing as that streak is to the franchise, there were pertinent signs of trouble this week. At a point in a lost season when youth should be served, the team's three most recent first-rounders are spending as much time in the press box as on the bench. You might be willing to write off the slumps of Kyle Turris and Mikkel Boedker as the typical struggles of rookies who've hit the wall. But Peter Mueller?

Since suffering a concussion on Jan. 27, Mueller's been a shadow of the player who carried the Coyotes in the second half of last season. He has just one assist in his last 12 games, and hasn't scored since coming off the IR on Feb. 14. He's unlikely to reprise last spring's appearance with Team USA at the World Championships and it's probably just as well, both for the Yanks and his long-term health.

I know better. Really, I do. But sometimes I just can't help myself. . .

In a clever bid for free publicity, animal rights group PETA reacted to news that the Canadiens might be for sale by sending a letter to Montreal owner George Gillett expressing their interest in "renting" the team for one week. Their skimpy $10,000 (CDN) offer came with the stipulation that they would rename the side the Canadian Seal Pups "to draw awareness to our ongoing efforts to save the baby animals," according to PETA director Dan Shannon.

They better hope Montreal's power play continues to click like it did Thrusday night against the Islanders. Last thing PETA wants is to see the Seal Pups beaten. . .

Tip o' the cap to reader Chuck Riggle, who sent along this clip of Oilers' prospect Linus Omark (2007, 97th overall) scoring a sweet shootout goal for Sweden in a friendly against Switzerland. Don't think I've seen this move before. If you've got a favorite, send it along.

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