Peter The Great As rumors of dissension and a possible coaching change swirled around the sputtering Avalanche, Colorado star Peter Forsberg seized control of the series against Edmonton

May 03, 1998

There are nine stitches on the right cheek of Peter Forsberg, an
inch-long, purplish wound that traces the bone midway between
his nose and ear. The NHL could use that zipper on the Colorado
Avalanche center's long, boyish face as its logo for North
America's traveling blood-donor clinic--sometimes called the
first week of the playoffs--but in Denver and Edmonton last
week, the straight line of sutures served as a Rorschach test.
Everyone saw it differently. The stitches, courtesy of a slash
by Oilers winger Bill Guerin in Game 1, were grounds for what
should have been a suspension (according to Colorado), were an
excuse for Avalanche whining (said Edmonton) and were "cute" (in
the view of Forsberg's girlfriend, Koli Chapel). They provoked
name-calling in a Denver newspaper (which labeled Guerin a
"butcher"), inspired a fractured fable from Oilers president
Glen Sather ("This reminds me of the nursery rhyme where the
little boy goes up the hill three times and cries wolf") and
elicited more invective over any cut since the Florida Marlins'
payroll.

The only person seemingly able to keep a straight, albeit
scarred, face was Forsberg. He thought Guerin's slash in the
frantic closing seconds of the first game was "kind of dirty,"
but he had difficulty publicly working himself up into a lather
over what, in the technical language of playoff hockey, was a
boo-boo. Colorado captain Joe Sakic did say, however, that
Forsberg was bitter, less about the slash than about the
Avalanche's 3-2 loss. The next day Forsberg told teammates he
was going to have a big game, a surprise not because he is
incapable of one but because Forsberg usually lets his play
speak for itself. He doesn't get mad. He gets even.

Colorado got more than even, taking a 2-1 series lead with a
nervous 5-4 overtime victory on Sunday in Edmonton. As whispers
about internal troubles swirled around hockey's most gifted
team, Forsberg grabbed the series by the throat and squeezed. He
was in on eight of the Avalanche's 12 goals through three games,
scoring four of them. Everything Forsberg did was monumental,
either in its beauty (he dominated Game 2 with two goals and
three assists in Colorado's 5-2 win) or its stupidity (the
slashing penalty he took in overtime of Game 3).

Like Frankenstein's monster--another amalgamation with
scars--Forsberg is a piece of work. Oilers assistant coach Bob
McCammon says that Forsberg has the meanness of Mark Messier,
the dirtiness of Ken Linseman, the smarts of Wayne Gretzky and
the strength of Bryan Trottier. Avalanche coach Marc Crawford
says that Forsberg's competitiveness sets him apart from
"ordinary superstars." As Forsberg lay on a table in the
Colorado trainer's room after Game 1, a mask covering all of his
face but the gash, his coach was at a press conference
complaining that Edmonton had gotten away with murder against
Forsberg. Considering that Forsberg had scored both goals,
Oilers captain Kelly Buchberger later said, "Maybe we didn't
play him tough enough."

Forsberg's sutures might have been stitches in time for a team
that has the potential to win multiple Stanley Cups but
sometimes looks as out of sync as a spaghetti western. In the
first three games against Edmonton the 1996 champions--given
their collective 24 rings--played with a surprising lack of
poise, looking jittery whenever an Oilers forward attacked with
speed, and frittering away leads with stunning lapses. The
Avalanche gave up three goals in a 3:49 stretch of the third
period of Game 1 and two in 81 seconds that sent Game 3 into
overtime. Uncharacteristically, goalie Patrick Roy was merely
ordinary.

Colorado had meandered through the final seven weeks of the
regular season, winning just eight of its last 22 games, a span
that included a six-game losing streak. There were reasons for
the slump: the knee injury Sakic sustained at the Olympics;
Forsberg's pulled groin muscle, which sidelined him for seven
games; mental fatigue among the nine players the team sent to
Nagano; and a comfort level that reflected the standings. "We
had nothing to play for," Forsberg says. "We were locked into
that [No. 2 seed in the Western Conference]. For a long, long
time there was frustration in the room. Guys were saying, 'C'mon
boys, we have to start winning,' but we kept on losing." The
losses were a swampy breeding ground for rumors.

A quote from an anonymous Avalanche player in The Denver Post on
April 15 said, "Crawford is losing it [the dressing room]"--no
Colorado player would repeat that sentiment either on or off the
record last week--and during a Hockey Night in Canada panel
discussion on April 18, a Toronto sportswriter suggested that
Crawford's job was in jeopardy. Crawford was sufficiently
annoyed by the panel discussion to request an audiotape of it
from the CBC. About 90 minutes before Game 1 he was on the
telephone with one of the panelists, commentator John Davidson,
discussing what had been said. Crawford might be a candidate for
a sacking based solely on the actuarial tables for NHL
coaches--he has been with the organization for four years, about
the shelf life for anyone not named Scotty Bowman. But while
Avalanche general manager Pierre Lacroix left himself a
nobody-knows-the-future out, he did say last week that Crawford,
who has a year remaining on his contract, would be back.

"This stuff is all fiction," Lacroix said about the supposed
discord in Colorado. "This circle of [reporters] sits around and
says there's a problem and that I know about it and I'm letting
it go, which makes me [seem like] an idiot. I'm close enough to
know if there is a cancer on the team. There is no cancer."

There were also intimations in print of a rift between Crawford
and Roy, which the high-maintenance goalie dismissed as bilge.
"I heard about that, and it hurt me a lot because I really like
Marc Crawford," Roy said. "All around, he's probably the best
coach I've ever had. I had a great relationship with Jacques
[Demers, who coached Roy with the Montreal Canadiens] but it
might even be better with Cro."

Why shouldn't it be? Crawford has played Roy just about all the
time, including in the loss to Finland in the Olympic bronze
medal match, when a switch to backup Martin Brodeur would have
been the best chance to reenergize Canada after its crushing
shoot-out loss to the Czech Republic. The coach also has stoutly
defended the goalie's excesses, which include his picking an
April Fools' Day fight with Detroit Red Wings goalie Chris
Osgood and his habit of overhandling the puck. "The coaching
staff accepts when I make a mistake, and I'm the first one to
protect [Crawford] if anybody gives it to him," Roy said in a
deserted locker room on the off day after Game 1. "And our slump
didn't worry me. We were playing teams that were battling for
position. For some teams, the playoffs started a while ago. For
us, maybe it didn't even start [with Game 1] but will start
tomorrow."

Roy was prescient. The posturing between the first two games was
diverting but meaningless. The Avalanche sent videotapes to the
league office of Guerin's high stick and Doug Weight's
two-hander, which broke third-line winger Rene Corbet's
thumb--any playoff game in super slo-mo looks like the Zapruder
film--but the NHL declined to suspend anyone, in essence telling
the teams to settle the business between themselves. Sather also
weighed in with the boy-going-up-the-hill-to-cry-wolf remark,
but before the Oilers chartered home 36 hours later, Forsberg
had fashioned one of the most extraordinary playoff performances
of the 1990s, on the embarrassingly slushy McNichols Arena ice.

The story was not simply the five points Forsberg scored but the
artistry he displayed. He tallied one goal by weaving through
two Edmonton defenders and beating goalie Curtis Joseph from a
sharp angle, though that was merely his third-best play of the
night. While killing a penalty after the Oilers had crept to
within 2-1, Forsberg was cut off along the boards by a
defenseman. Instead of dumping the puck aimlessly into the
Edmonton zone, he flipped a long, blind, backhand pass onto the
stick of Sakic, who scored Colorado's third goal. The pass was
so accurate and well-timed that Lacroix speculated, incorrectly,
that Forsberg must have seen Sakic's reflection in the glass.
But the real eye candy came in the third period. With Bobby
Dollas pressuring him behind the Oilers' net, Forsberg passed
the puck to himself off the bottom of the cage with his
forehand, then backhanded it through the skates of the suddenly
ossified defenseman, picking it up and zipping it around the net
for a scoring chance on which his team, alas, did not
capitalize. "[Dollas] was coming so fast, I had to figure out
some way to get out of it," Forsberg said. The play was the
equivalent of Michael Jordan switching to the left hand and
going under the hoop for a layup, something that can be
justified on utilitarian grounds even though the whole world
knows he did it just for the heck of it.

"That's Peter," Sakic said of Forsberg's performance following
the slash in Game 1. "He's not going to complain. He's going to
go out and run the guy the next time--or get five points,
whichever comes first."

Edmonton knew it couldn't give Forsberg as much space in Game 3,
which perhaps is why the visitor's bench at Edmonton Coliseum
was bolted about 10 inches closer to the boards than usual,
creating the same sort of cramped space that guests at McNichols
must endure. The Avalanche training staff had to construct a
riser for the coaches after the one behind the bench
mysteriously disappeared, along with the rack that holds the
players' water bottles. Even after the riser was built, what
Crawford saw was maddening at times. Forsberg set up a goal on a
first-period power play after drawing the penalty that gave
Colorado the man advantage, but he lost his composure in
overtime. After drawing an interference penalty, he reacted to a
spear by Roman Hamrlik with a slash that felled the Oilers
defenseman and best supporting actor. "Peter was stupid, no
doubt," said Crawford later, "but Joey bailed him out." Sakic
buried a 30-footer at 15:25 of overtime, rendering moot the lack
of discipline shown by Forsberg and forward Tom Fitzgerald, who
earlier had drawn an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty for yapping
at referee Bill McCreary.

Will the real Colorado team please stand up. The Avalanche has
the best playoff goalie in Roy, the peskiest playoff pest in
Claude Lemieux, the most dangerous rushing defenseman in Sandis
Ozolinsh, the deadliest sniper in Sakic and, of course,
Forsberg, but Colorado's breakdowns in defense and discipline,
the exposed nerves, the soft goals, send a mixed message.

So go ahead, take one last look at Forsberg's cheek. Consider,
before it fades, the inch-long cut that is his playoff badge.
Right now, it is the only thing the Avalanche has sewn up.

COLOR PHOTO: TIM DEFRISCO CRUNCH TIME Though Mats Lindgren was wall-mounted by Uwe Krupp in Game 1, the Oilers won 3-2. COLOR PHOTO: TIM DEFRISCO BLOODIED BUT UNBOWED After a slash opened a nine-stitch gash in Game 1, Forsberg retaliated with five points in the next match. [Peter Forsberg wearing bloodied jersey] COLOR PHOTO: DAVID E. KLUTHO LONELY FEELING Roy, merely mortal in the first three games, did make this save against a wide-open Janne Niinimaa in Game 1. [Janne Niinimaa and Patrick Roy in game]

Forsberg has the meanness of Messier, the smarts of Gretzky,
the strength of Trottier.

"Guys were saying, 'C'mon, boys, we have to start winning,' but
we just kept losing."

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)