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Colorado's Orlando Line spelling trouble for foes


Acronym names for lines almost always don't work. The BBC Line -- Bates Battaglia, Rod Brind'Amour and Erik Cole -- in Carolina a few years ago wasn't bad. Toronto's old HEM Line -- Billy Harris, Garry Ehman and Frank Mahovlich -- in the 1960s had a nice ring to it. But mostly what you get after playing around with the players' initials is gobbledygook.

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One moniker that's catching on in Denver, though, is the Avalanche's OR-LAN-DO Line of Ryan O'Reilly, Gabriel Landeskog and Steve Downie. In the NHL, trios stay together about as long as a Kardashian marriage, but this one looks like it could stick for a while. Maybe a good long while.

"It's been our best line, no doubt about it," says veteran goalie Jean-Sebastien Giguere.

O'Reilly is 21 and a nice guy, but a royal pain to play against because he is always hounding the puck. Landeskog, the second overall pick in last year's NHL Draft and a Calder Trophy candidate, still has to wait a couple of years before he's deemed legally able to buy a drink in a bar in the U.S. He looks like he could sing lead in a boy band, but he plays an old-school, sandpapery game. Downie, 24, is the old man of the group and perpetually looks like he just climbed out of the wrong side of his bed.

All three have interesting back stories.

O'Reilly grew up among foster kids. As part of her job with Canadian Social Services, his mom took in several at a time at the family's home, a converted schoolhouse in Varna, Ontario. Over the years, Bonnie O'Reilly estimates that her own boys, Ryan and Cal, had 49 foster housemates.

Ryan did some nice things during his first two seasons with the Avs, including making the roster as an 18-year-old in 2009 along with highly-touted forward Matt Duchene, who'd been chosen third overall. Drafted 33rd by Colorado in the second round that year, O'Reilly's play nonetheless seemed nondescript on many nights. But last summer, with his life coach father, Brian, imparting the wisdom he has bestowed upon such clients as Olympic athletes and the CEOs of Fortune 500 companies, O'Reilly started to learn the art of better breathing. It sounds kooky, but being able to calm himself and focus during "shallow-breath" moments such the ones that occur late in a tie game with crucial points at stake has helped him master and even excel in those situations.

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The results? As of March 9, O'Reilly was leading the Avs in scoring, with 51 points, and he'll probably get some consideration for the Selke Trophy as the league's best defensive forward.

"He's had a really outstanding season," says Avs coach Joe Sacco. "He has really taken his game to another level."

Landeskog's father, Tony, played in the Swedish Elite League. At age 16, Gabriel decided to leave his comfortable home life and sign with Kitchener of the Ontario Hockey League. There, he became the first European to captain the Rangers. He also managed to learn English so well that he really, truly, has a Canadian accent now. It amazes every reporter who talks to him for the first time.

"I just got out of my comfort zone in Sweden, and made the best decision of my life to leave for Canadian major junior when I did," says Landeskog, who ranks second among NHL rookies as of this writing in points (43) and first in categories such as plus-minus (+22), shots (227) and takeaways (54). "That's the one thing I really give myself credit for, was taking that chance and going to a new surrounding, where everything was different. It made me really grow as a person and a player."

In Downie, the Avs acquired a guy who talks like a choir boy but looks like the lead biker in a Hell's Angels contingent. His hair spills like a brown waterfall down the sides of his head. He's got missing teeth, and when he looks at you, it feels like he might be thinking "Should I be nice to this guy or punch him in the mouth?" He can be excused for the anger issues that have long dogged his career.

In 1996, as his father, John, drove him to a hockey practice, their car hit some ice and careened out of control before crashing. Downie, 8 at the time, was unhurt but watched his father die instantly. He found the strength and determination to go on in the sport, and was drafted by Philadelphia in the first round of 2005. By then, however, most of the hearing in his right ear was gone, the result of a disease called ostosclerosis. He now wears a hearing aid, but not on the ice, where he goes mostly on instinct -- and his instinct is to hit first, ask questions later. He has been suspended multiple times during his career, and his on-ice persona, Sacco says, "unnerves opponents."

After a turbulent stay with the Flyers, Downie harnessed his fury in Tampa Bay and became surprisingly productive while skating on a line with Steven Stamkos and Martin St. Louis. SI. com's Michael Farber included Downie on his list of hockey's Stealth Forces for 2010-11, and the disturber posted 14 points in 17 playoff games for the Lightning last spring. He was shocked when he was dealt to Colorado on February 21 for defenseman Kyle Quincey (who was promptly flipped to Detroit for a first-round pick). Immediately, Downie put the Lightning in the "they'll get theirs" box that so many players and teams have occupied during his hockey life.

"The trade definitely gave me some motivation, a little bit of fire," he says. That fire produced two goals, eight assists and a +10 rating in his first seven games with the Avalanche.

On Thursday, Colorado got the bad news that Matt Duchene will be lost for three to four weeks with a right ankle injury, so much will depend on the Orlando Line down the stretch if the Avs are to avoid missing the playoffs for the third time in four seasons. They may not be quite ready to play hockey after mid-April with a team that is the league's youngest in average age and lowest in overall payroll. But the Avs are making strides in their goal of making it back to the level the franchise enjoyed during its halcyon days. If they get there, it's possible the O'Reilly, Landeskog and Downie line, no matter what you call it, will have done its part.