Northwest passage

The best race so far this season comes from a division that has produced the last two Western Conference champions, but still rarely gets any coverage.

All five teams in the Northwest Division are separated by just four points. The Edmonton Oilers took control ... well, they took a two-point lead atop the division ... when they beat the Vancouver Canucks 4-0 on Monday behind 36 saves from Dwayne Roloson.

The Oilers have just 30 points -- the lowest total among any of the six division leaders, and will be without their leading scorer for a while. Ryan Smyth suffered a broken thumb Saturday in a shutout loss to the Columbus Blue Jackets and will be out indefinitely. Linemate Ales Hemsky also is out with a shoulder injury forcing a team that is averaging less than three goals per game to scramble for scorers.

In Monday's win, the Oilers got goals from four players and two assists from Petr Sykora. Picked up as a free agent after splitting time with the Anaheim Ducks and New York Rangers last season, the Czech center is well on his way to having his best season since a 59-point campaign with the Ducks in 2002-03.

They're not the only the team that's been dinged up. Injuries to Marian Gaborik and Pavol Demitra among others have kept the Minnesota Wild from building off a team-record 6-0 start to the season, but they trail Edmonton by just two points.

Gaborik has missed almost 20 games with a groin injury while Demitra, acquired in a trade to provide a second scoring option to the defensive-minded Wild, has missed six games with a concussion.

Vancouver thought it had solved its goaltending woes after acquring Roberto Luongo from the Florida Panthers in the offseason, but after inking him to a four-year, $27 million contract, they're finding that he's woefully inconsistent.

Compared to fellow Quebec natives Patrick Roy and Martin Brodeur when he was picked fourth overall by the New York Islanders in 1997, Luongo hasn't won more than three games in a row this season, but he also hasn't lost more than three straight either. Poor divisional play also could catch up with the Canucks as half of their 14 losses have come against Northwest foes.

The Calgary Flames overcame a possible Vezina Trophy hangover by Miikka Kiprusoff to climb back into the race. In his first 11 starts this season, Kiprusoff was 3-7-1 with 2.84 goals-against average and one shutout. Since then, however, he's 9-2-0 with a 1.37 GAA and two shutouts.

As they have in the past, the Flames will look for Kiprusoff to keep them in games because their offense is perpetually anemic. They've scored just 74 goals in 26 games so far, one fewer than Edmonton's total.

The Colorado Avalanche, who owned the Northwest for years after moving from Quebec more than a decade ago, are tied with the Flames at 26 points. They're also not used to being in this position -- it hasn't had fewer than 95 points in a season or finished lower than second in the division since arriving in Denver.

The Avs don't have a player with double-digits in goals -- 17-year veteran and franchise face Joe Sakic has nine in 26 games -- and though they're fighting to stay out of the cellar, the Avs lead the division with 81 goals scored so far. Goaltenders Jose Theodore (7-7-1, 3.00 GAA) and Peter Budaj (5-5-1, 2.50) have been less than overwhelming, so Colorado will need to continue relying on its offense.

Sounds good so far. Lots of subplots and intrigue ... provided you can watch it.

But unless you have the NHL Center Ice package or live in the Denver or Twin Cities metropolitan areas, the only way you may know about these teams is online or in your newspaper.

The Avalanche already have appeared on Versus twice this season and are scheduled five more times.
Minnesota, which plays the suddenly surging Chicago Blackhawks on Tuesday, is making just the second of three appearances on national television.

Edmonton and Calgary -- the last two conference champs -- won't be seen in the States, nor will Vancouver.

Check with your local cable company, though, to see if they carry Versus. Any network that carries the Barbeque Championship Series has to be must-see TV.

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