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Taking stock at the 'first turn'
Wayne Scanlan, The Ottawa Citizen
Saturday, November 25, 2006

It seems like years ago, but it was only last December.

The Ottawa Senators flew to Vancouver for a showdown with the Canucks that fans and media were hyping as a potential Stanley Cup preview.

Dangerous talk, that.

This is why it's rarely wise to risk the house or first-born child on a hockey prediction. What seemed sound in early December -- Ottawa running away with the East, 21-4 at the time; Vancouver second in the West at 17-9-2 and about to jump to 20-9-2 -- turned into folly.

Though they enjoyed something better than an annus horribilis, the Canucks slipped to ninth in the West, missing out on the playoffs by three measly points, at 92.

Ottawa's story is more familiar. The Senators ran up such a ridiculous lead over the first couple of months that hardly anybody noticed their second-half tail-off.

It was put down to a few key injuries, and the team was supposed to get back to "normal" when Dominik Hasek and Zdeno Chara recovered from their injuries.

Hasek never did come back, Chara was not the same player he was in the regular season, and the Senators were gone in five second-round games.

So much for the big Ottawa-Vancouver showdown.

The Calgary Flames were thought to be the other western club that might face the Senators in the Cup final.

And why not?

The Flames had a terrific year, third overall in the West with 103 points and one the game's best goalies, Miikka Kiprusoff, available for playoff duty.

Anaheim, though, prevailed in seven games for a first-round upset, leaving the unheralded Edmonton Oilers to carry Canada's hopes all the way to the Stanley Cup final.

And still we wait for the successor to the 1993 Canadiens.

How are Canada's teams faring at the quarter pole of this regular season? Overall, not great. But keep in mind the lessons of a year ago.

Or, to quote that horseman and Senators franchise owner Eugene Melnyk from his recent state of the team address: "It doesn't matter where you are at the first turn of the Kentucky Derby."

At various turns of last season's hockey horse race, the six Canadian franchises looked like they might all qualify for the playoffs. In the end, the Toronto Maple Leafs joined the Canucks on the outside looking in at the fun.

In the East, Montreal and Toronto seemed to draw life from the Senators' gas fumes as they roared out of the gate. The Leafs were 15-9-3 on Dec. 1 and the Habs were 15-7-5 two days later. By spring, the Leafs missed their first playoff since 1998 and head coach Pat Quinn was replaced by Paul Maurice.

Claude Julien didn't even survive the drive to a playoff spot, as the Canadiens began the transition to coach Guy Carbonneau.

Today, the new coaches are enjoying a decent honeymoon, as the Canadiens and Leafs have pulled off a fair imitation of playoff contenders at Melnyk's proverbial "first turn."

The Senators, meanwhile -- it has been in all the papers -- are still striving to look the part of a serious threat.

Some have hastily predicted a rare non-playoff season for Ottawa, but realistically, how serious a threat are the teams between the Senators and eighth place -- the likes of the New York Islanders, Washington, Pittsburgh and Tampa Bay?

There are stiffs out west, too (rise for a bow, St. Louis, Columbus, Phoenix), but it looks like the western Canadians will once again need an extra few points more than their eastern brothers.

The Oilers, Flames and Canucks have all been hovering around the cutoff point, each looking for a little hot streak for comfort.

After a rough start, the Flames have come the closest to putting something together, winning seven of their past 10. Early on, Calgary couldn't seem to score even the one or two goals Kiprusoff needs for a margin, but lately Jarome Iginla has picked up his game and others have followed.

Goaltender Dwayne Roloson is surprising a lot of people who wrote up his playoff run as a one-off. It helps that the Oilers are scoring a bit.

Like a lot of teams, the Canucks are all over the map. On Wednesday, they handle the classy Detroit Red Wings in overtime.

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