DENVER -- For opponents of the Colorado Avalanche, trips to Denver used to be like going to the dentist. You took your drilling, left the building feeling numb, and hoped the calendar didn't call for a return visit anytime soon.
Let's just say a lot of pearly white smiles baring visitors' remaining teeth have been seen after games at the Pepsi Center during the past calendar year.
Trouble, like charity, begins at home. That has certainly been true for Denver's once-proud NHL franchise, which was slated to start a record eight-game run there on Friday night against the Dallas Stars. Like the weather in Honolulu, such a favorable schedule would ordinarily be cause for some easy forecasting. Avs teams of yore would be expected to win a minimum of six and most likely did. But this most recent edition carried a 2-6-1 home mark into its game against Dallas, and was 5-19-2 overall in its previous 26 home outings. Colorado's road record, even after consecutive losses to Pittsburgh and Minnesota this week, was a healthy 6-4-1 for the season. Tthe next two weeks will surely be the ultimate Pepsi challenge.
"I wish I knew," says new captain Milan Hejduk, when asked about the team's ongoing futility at home. "We've shown we can win games on the road against good hockey teams. But we haven't won at home and it's made the big difference in our record."
Stanley Cup-winners in 1996 and 2001 but without a trip beyond the second round of the playoffs since 2002, the Avs have more problems than just their weird home mark. This team is trying like heck to establish a new foundation built on youth. The organization wants to believe great days are ahead with kid forwards such as Matt Duchene, Gabriel Landeskog and Ryan O'Reilly. Yet, reminders are everywhere about just how far they have to go to make fans forget their favorite stars of the past. In the Avs' dressing room, for example, a museum-like display of Joe Sakic's old locker is encased in glass. Forward Cody McLeod occupies the stall right next to it, but through his first 19 games, he had produced exactly one more point than the retired captain this season.
The loudest the Pepsi Center has been was on opening night, but not for the current players wearing the Burgundy and Blue. The roar was for Peter Forsberg, who had his No. 21 jersey retired and raised to the rafters. Try as the Avs might to forge a new identity, the one thought they're forguing in the minds of most Denver hockey fans is: "We want the old days back."
The word "identity" is used a lot by third-year coach Joe Sacco. A lunch pail player for 14 NHL seasons after a successful college career under legendary coach Jack Parker at Boston University, Sacco wants his team to be identified as quick, hard-working and tough. But on too many nights, he's gotten zilch across the board. None out of three ain't good.
The frustrating irony is that Sacco's team doesn't seem to know what its identity is. Tuesday night in Pittsburgh, the Avs played a free-wheeling, fun, skilled game against the Penguins, taking a 3-1 lead and nearly building a bigger one if not for the stout defensive efforts of a couple of goalposts. In the third period, the Avs tried to slow things down and preserve their advantage. They played too much in their own end and left the arena on the nasty end of the 6-3 final score.
Then on Thursday night in St. Paul, the Avs took on the plodding, defense-minded Wild. Instead of skating like they did in Pittsburgh, they looked like they were trying to match each dump-and-change shift with Minnesota. The result? A competitive game, but a 1-0 loss.
Bottom line: the Avs play too much like the team they're skating against and often abandon their own distinctive brand of hockey.
Whether the right people in Denver care enough about all this is a typical gripe among many of the dedicated Avs fans who remain. The team's ownership group, led by E. Stanley Kroenke and his son, Josh, are rarely seen at home games and they almost never talk publicly about the Avs (though Josh, an executive with the NBA's Denver Nuggets, is often front and center at that team's press conferences). Below the Kroenkes, former maestro GM Pierre Lacroix retains the title of team president, but he's rarely around the building anymore too. His son, Eric, is the assistant GM to Greg Sherman. The great and popular Sakic has the title of "executive adviser." Confused yet about really runs the show? The question of who's in charge has been leveled at the guys upstairs as well as at the guys down on the ice.
It wasn't until last Monday that the Avs finally got around to naming a captain: the 35-year-old Hejduk. While the classy Czech right winger is deserving of the honor, the question of why it took so long to give it to him became an embarrassing insight into the team's makeup.
The Avs seemed to want one of their young, supposed stars-of-the-future to grab the 'C', but Duchene has already been dumped to the fourth line once this season and moved to the unnatural position of left wing. Center Paul Stastny, the team's highest-paid player at $6.6 million per season, managed to squeeze out zero shots on goal in more than 20 minutes of ice time on Thursday against the Wild. Only once since Dec. 11-13 of 2010 has the son of Hall of Famer Peter Stastny scored goals in consecutive games. Paul's only other back-to-back goal performances were on March 28-31 of last season.
GM Sherman, meanwhile, has hung his legacy on three big trades he's made:
1. He dealt former No. 1 goalie, Craig Anderson, to Ottawa last Feb. 18 for netminder Brian Elliott, who was a washout in Colorado but is now thriving in St. Louis.
2. In a late-night blockbuster that caught everyone by surprise on Feb. 19, Sherman moved two young, promising players -- winger Chris Stewart and defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk to the Blues for blueliner Erik Johnson, center Jay McClement and a first-round pick that turned out to be rugged D-man Duncan Siemens. (As mid-Novermber rolled along, Johnson, the former first overall pick by the Blues in 2006, was still looking for his first goal while Shattenkirk already had two, 12 points and a plus-7 rating after his first 17 games with the Blues.)
3. On July 1, Sherman stunned everyone again by dealing Colorado's first- and second-round picks in next year's draft to Washington for goalie Semyon Varlamov. After a strong start, which included a shutout of the Bruins in Boston, the young Russian's numbers entering the weekend of Nov. 18-20 were: 5-8-1, 3.30 GAA, .890 save percentage. If the Capitals end up with a lottery pick next June thanks to that trade -- a more panicky thought for the hardcore faithful with every loss -- the Pepsi Center figures to become ever more echo-y and drafty than it already is.
Entering the epic homestand, Colorado was ranked 24th in the NHL in average attendance, at 14,822 per game in Denver. The Avs ranked 24th there last season as well, and 27th in 2009-10, which makes this the most critical time in recent franchise history. Normally, it's a good thing to face such a test entirely on home ice, but with all those ghostly reminders of past glory surrounding them, maybe these young Avs are just too spooked -- like someone about to undergo root canal without novocaine.