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Roger Phillips | NHL.com correspondent
Jan 11, 2007, 12:00 PM EST


Finally, a team has shown signs of emerging from the mediocrity that defined the Northwest Division for the season’s first three months.

The identity of that team, however, is somewhat surprising. It’s not either of the recent Stanley Cup finalists, Edmonton or Calgary. It’s not the Colorado Avalanche of Joe Sakic & Co.

No, it’s a Vancouver Canucks team that has struggled all season to find the back of the net, a Canucks team that looked for a long time like it was going absolutely nowhere.

But with a 4-3 shootout victory Sunday over the Florida Panthers, the Canucks stretched their winning streak to seven games, a run that has moved them into first place in the Northwest.

Who knows if the Canucks will be able to sustain this -- their offense has perked up lately and it remains to be seen if that will last -- but it was fitting that the latest win came against the Panthers. It was a trade last June with Florida that brought the Canucks goalie Roberto Luongo – Vancouver’s MVP and this week’s First Star in the NHL.

In the past week, Luongo picked up four victories, two by shootout, and had a 1.92 goals-against average and a .940 save percentage.

Goaltending had been a soft spot for the Canucks in recent years, but not anymore. And one of the most durable traits for the 27-year-old Luongo is his durability. Coach Alain Vigneault said recently he figured before the season that Luongo would play about 65 games. Now, it looks like he might play 70. Luongo has started 40 of the Canucks’ first 43 games, and appeared in relief in one other. At this rate, he might start 75 games.

“He's a 70-game goalie,” Vigneault recently told the Vancouver Province. “Minimum. Anything less and he'd be really, really upset with me.”

Luongo is realistic, though. He loves to play a lot of games, but admits he might have worn down late last season with Florida when he appeared in a career high 75 games. Vigneault said part of his job is to try to keep his star goalie fresh. But don’t look for Luongo to get too many days off anytime soon; despite the Canucks’ recent success and their lead in the division, they are still in an extremely tight race. And the difference between finishing first or second in the Northwest Division title might be the difference between making or missing the playoffs.

Right now, though, Luongo is looking like a big reason why the Canucks just might keep on playing well into April and beyond.

"Roberto has been a huge part of our success and he's been everything we wished for," right wing Markus Naslund told The Province. "I can't say enough good things about the way he's playing. We realize he's won a few games for us that maybe we shouldn't have won and that's why he's a star goaltender."

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