Darren Eliot
Monday October 29th, 2007

It never gets old watching certain guys play hockey, even as they continue to age. Joe Sakic is one of those special cases. And right now, Sakic at the ripe old age of 38, is worth catching any time you can, as he on one of his top form streaks.

Like most elite players, Sakic makes those around him better. He certainly contributes enough on his own, but his ability to raise the level of play in his linemates is a rare gift. We're not talking Wayne Gretzky turning Dave Lumley into a 30-goal man with a 12-game lamp-lighting streak in 1981-82, or a teenaged Mario Lemieux transforming journeyman Warren Young into a 40-goal man in 1984-85. In this case, Sakic is meshing with new teammate Ryan Smyth, who is already an established NHL star. The tandem is tearing it up in the Western Conference, especially displaying their instant chemistry on home ice where they have led the Avalanche to a perfect 5-0 record that includes Sunday's 3-1 win over Minnesota in which Sakic set up Smyth's game-tying first period tally. The duo assisted on Marek Svatos' go-ahead goal in the second.

Before you go off thinking that it is a cinch to pair proven players together and get the expected results, I hold up the New York Rangers as exhibit A. The predicted success of having Scott Gomez feeding Jaromir Jagr nifty passes hasn't yet materialized. Nor has Chris Drury's lauded leadership and big moment prowess come forth. So, instant assimilation isn't a given. You'd never tell, however, watching Sakic and Smyth work together. Both have five goals apiece -- as does a third-party beneficiary, right winger Svatos, who has filled in while Milan Hejduk missed the past four games.

Sakic's ability to find Smyth so easily is a sign of greatness, but also hastening their side-by-side effectiveness is the fact that the two know each other hockey-wise from playing as teammates on several editions of Team Canada. Most recently, they played together at the 2006 Olympic Games in Turin, Italy. Then consider that, over the past couple of seasons, Andrew Brunette has played on Sakic's line. Brunette and Smyth play similar games. Both are intelligent players who excel down low in the offensive zone and are adept at give-and-go net plays as well as establishing body position in the high-traffic scoring areas.

So, that familiarity -- both of the player and his style of play -- is on Sakic's side. But what is as striking as Sakic's recent run of point-per-game-plus production is how comfortable Smyth looks in an Avs jersey. Prior to his acrimonious down-to-the-wire February trade deadline negotiations in Edmonton, Smyth was the face of the Oilers franchise. He was a local product and the team's captain. He oozed Oilers. Watching him play now, though, he looks like an Avalanche lifer. The Rocky Mountain logo suits him. He doesn't look awkward or out of place at all.

That's to Smyth's credit, surely. So to, though, is the astute assessment by Avs' management. They signed a player they knew would fit their style of play. The differences in systems from team to team and conference to conference might be subtle, but it can have a substantial effect on early output and long-term production. There are no such issues with Ryan Smyth in Denver.

Of course, it helps when Joe Sakic drives the welcome wagon.

Monday: If you're looking for the contrast between the Avs' seamless assimilation of Smyth and the Rangers' struggles to do likewise with their big- name off-season signings, the Blueshirts host the Tampa Bay Lightning at Madison Square Garden.

Thursday: November kicks off with a visit by Daniel Briere to Montreal. Briere was rumored to be headed to the Canadiens as a free agent this past summer, but instead opted to sign with Philadelphia. He and the Flyers can expect a rude response from Habs loyalists.

The same night, Sakic, Smyth and the rest of the Avs entertain the Pittsburgh Penguins in what is Sidney Crosby's first visit to the Mile High City. This tilt promises to provide plenty of pace and offensive output. It also pits Evgeni Malkin -- last year's Calder Trophy-winner as the NHL's top rookie -- versus Paul Stastny, last season's runner-up to Malkin. No sophomore slump so far for either. Stastny leads the Avalanche in scoring, and Malkin is tied with Crosby for most points on the Penguins.

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