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COFFEY, BOWMAN HAVE RED WINGS LOOKING LIKE BEST OF WEST

SEEN ENOUGH of those pesky Florida Panthers? Had your fill of Jaromir Jagr stories? Tired of looking up in the standing and seeing all those Eastern Conference teams ahead of the Sabres?

Well cheer up, Bubba. In our never-ending quest to make the hockey world one again, we proudly bring you the Western Conference Update, a look at the wonderful western teams you don't see this season.

The Detroit Red Wings are playing hockey at a Stanley Cup level. There has been some gripping about coach Scott Bowman stressing so much defense, but the Red Wings are buying into the program, led by none other than defenseman Paul Coffey (often a Bowman adversary in Pittsburgh).

The Red Wings haven't been able to distance themselves totally from the pack, but they're winning enough of the key games against St. Louis, Toronto and Chicago to give one the distinct impression they will be the team to beat.

Ironically, super center Steve Yzerman is struggling. He recently ended a 15-game goal-less streak, the longest of his career.

"Some games I played really well and I wasn't really thinking about it until I got like a dozen (games) or something," he said. "Then it was like, 'Geez, I haven't scored in awhile.' "

The surging Chicago Blackhawks are the biggest surprise in the West. They have reinvented their offense with the addition of second-line center Bernie Nicholls, a free-agent signee from New Jersey. Nicholls also helped spark the once-dormant Chicago power play. It recently was operating at just over 28 percent, one of the best numbers ever in the league.

The real surprise in Chicago, however, is the improved play of defenseman Chris Chelios. Once an easy mark for teams because of his short temper and long-standing desire to mix it up, Chelios has kept himself out of the penalty box. That means the Hawks aren't always killing penalties, and Chelios is working the point on the power play.

Chelios' good behavior seems directly related to NHL commissioner Gary Bettman letting him off the hook regarding threatening remarks he made toward Bettman and his family during the lockout. Insiders in Chicago say Chelios took Bettman's warning to heart and is intent on changing his image as a multitalented idiot.

Chicago goalie Ed Belfour's new three-year contract, which should be finalized next week, will make him one of the highest paid goalies in the game. The deal will average $3 million a season.

The much-heralded Edmonton Oilers revival is going on without Kent Nilsson. The old one had hoped to make a comeback after nearly eight years away from the NHL, but the experiment failed. The man Wayne Gretzky once called "the most talented player in the NHL" will finish the season as a scout and then return to Europe where he will do European scouting for the Oilers.

The Oilers have had five crowds of fewer than 11,000 this season, but owner Peter Pocklington thinks the team will start to draw again.

He could be right, Edmonton drew 14,000-plus for a Monday night game against Calgary.

In Toronto, a city farther east than Buffalo, Randy Wood is making an impact. On most nights, Wood is the second-line left winger. He's one of the Leafs' best defensive players too, usually leading the team in plus-minus. The Sabres' castoff (a waiver acquisition) is also fitting in well with teammates and fans.

The Leafs think they can make a run at the top in the second half if they get a little tougher. They continue to talk to Edmonton about Bryan Marchment, but Oilers GM Glen Sather keeps asking for defenseman Kenny Jonsson. Jonsson is the player the Leafs selected with the No. 1 pick they got from Buffalo in the Grant Fuhr deal. He's already playing with the team and the Leafs want to keep him. Too bad the Sabres didn't keep the pick and throw David Cooper into the Fuhr deal. Maybe they wouldn't have had to trade for Alexei Zhitnik.

The Calgary Flames recently spent 16 of 19 days on the road. They visited four states, two provinces and three time zones.

There's a flip side, however. The Flames are now in what amounts to a 29-day homestand. Eleven of 13 games are at home and the away games are up the road at Edmonton and over to Vancouver. The Flames have been decent at home this season (6-3-1) before the stand started, but they are troubled by injuries and seem to lack the ability to finish teams off when it's a close contest. Their big loss this season is scorer Gary Roberts, gone for the season after surgery for a neck problem.

The problems in Vancouver are legion, but the big ones revolve around an unhappy Pavel Bure and an overall lack of toughness. The second part is surprising since the Canucks have plenty of size. The consensus there is the players still haven't recovered from losing in a seven-game Stanley Cup final and keep waiting for the playoffs to resume. It's different for Bure, who's in a long-term contract squabble that gets uglier by the week.

Former Buffalo Sabres goaltending prospect Darcy Wakaluk played himself right out of the lineup in Dallas last week. Wakaluk was pulled during a game against Detroit after he let in a bad goal from former Sabre Bob Errey. When Wakaluk went to the dressing room he punched the wall and broke his right hand. He will be out three to four weeks.

Apparently the Stars are one of the few teams interested in getting serious about injury reports. (Hey, Buffalo! You reading this?) They put out a release detailing the incident.

"I just felt it would be better to be upfront, that this is what happened," said Stars coach Bob Gainey. "(It's better) than to try and make up another story and eventually have to answer questions anyway. The truth always comes out eventually. It's easier just to say 'here's what happened.' "

Someone should cast that in stone and drop it on every NHL doorstep.

Dallas has some trade bait in center Dave Gagner and winger Russ Courtnall.

Ramsey gets Sabre gift

Apparently the Sabres have learned a lesson from the Mike Foligno debacle last season in Florida. The Sabres this week sent former Sabres defenseman Mike Ramsey a framed action photo of himself in a Sabres game after Ramsey played in his 1,000th NHL contest. Ramsey, now a Red Wing, played 911 of his now 1,000-plus games in a Sabres uniform.

The Sabres were embarrassed last season when they ignored Foligno's 1,000th-game ceremony despite the fact they were the opponents that evening. There were several Sabres front-office people in the building that night, but no one made any gesture to Foligno, like Ramsey, a former Sabres captain.

According to Detroit representatives, members of the Knox family sent the gift.

Rossi steps down

This was the last week of active duty for Steve Rossi, the Sabres director of public relations. Rossi left to take a job outside of hockey but will remain in the community.

Rossi had a tough job in an organization that seldom put a high priority on public and media relations. Still, he was a true professional who did his job well. He will be missed.

Lemieux undecided

Mario Lemieux skated last Sunday for the first time since last year's Stanley Cup playoffs. It was a charity game at the Civic Arena in Pittsburgh, and Lemieux had two goals and an assist for a celebrity team that lost to Penguins' alumni, 12-6. After the game Lemieux said he had not made a decision about returning to the real Penguins.

"It would be nice to come back, but I'm only going to come back if I'm healthy," he said. "If I'm not healthy, there's no sense for me to try to come back and hurt my back again and suffer for the rest of my life. The most important thing is my health. If it's good, then I'll make a decision."

He said he felt he needed to be able to play 65-70 games per season to make it all the way back.

Around the boards

Boston Bruins center Adam Oates is closing in on a contract extension that would keep him in Boston through the 1998 season. Oates has this year and next remaining on a deal worth slightly more than $1 million but will get an estimated $2-plus million each of the next three seasons. Oates is 32 and would be an unrestricted free agent when his current pact expires. . . . Bruins GM Harry Sinden hopes to start working on a Cam Neely deal once the Oates pact is complete, but it will be a tough sell. Neely is on a one-year, $1.25 million deal and will be a free agent with compensation at the end of this season.

Robert Shapiro, one of the lawyer's representing O.J. Simpson, is a huge hockey fan. Shapiro recently approached Penguins owner Howard Baldwin for two autographed Jaromir Jagr sticks. One was for himself and the other was said to be for Simpson. Baldwin, who has a movie company and sometimes lives in the LA area, obliged.

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