Sandis Ozolinsh's return restored Colorado to Cup-contender

Here's Avalanche defenseman Sandis Ozolinsh's assessment of his
team: "Things are awesome. Everybody's happy, the guys are great."

There have been high times in Colorado since Ozolinsh finally
ended a season-long contract impasse on Jan. 5 and signed a
two-year deal worth $6.7 million. One of the NHL's premier
offensive defensemen, Ozolinsh joined the Avalanche five days
later, and Colorado (29-19-4 at week's end) immediately reeled
off a 12-game winning streak that restored its status as a
Stanley Cup contender.

Hard as it may be for Ozolinsh to believe, there were some
difficult times for the Avalanche before his return. Consider: a
season-opening 1-5-1 stretch; a rash of injuries that, at one
point, sidelined six defensemen; a locker room uprising against
winger Eric Lacroix, son of Colorado general manager Pierre
Lacroix, whom many players viewed as a stooge for his dad before
Eric was traded in November; and an outburst by goalie Patrick
Roy, who, after being removed from a game on Dec. 21, smashed
video equipment in the office of rookie coach Bob Hartley.

Roy's explosion was an extreme example of the uneasiness some
players felt toward the 38-year-old Hartley, who replaced Marc
Crawford after Colorado was upset by the Oilers in the first
round of the playoffs last spring. Hartley, who never played in
the NHL, was a coach in the minors for 10 years, the last two
with the Avalanche's AHL affiliate in Hershey, Pa. He shook up
Colorado with his hard-line approach and by reapportioning ice
time. Players weren't above making faces at Hartley behind his
back. "We were struggling, and having new coaches was difficult,"
says wing Claude Lemieux. "Now everybody feels good about
himself--and the coaching staff."

The turnaround would not have come without the cooperation of
elite centers Peter Forsberg and Joe Sakic. When Hartley made the
bold move of teaming them on a line with rookie right wing Milan
Hejduk on Dec. 2, Forsberg accepted his assignment to left wing
without complaint. The line has controlled games. During the
winning streak Sakic had 10 goals and nine assists, and Forsberg
had four goals and 12 assists.

Colorado also helped itself by appeasing the tetchy but talented
Roy, who was set to become an unrestricted free agent this
summer. On Jan. 25, Roy received a two-year, $15 million
extension, and in seven games after signing the deal, Roy
allowed only 11 goals. "I'd be lying to say the contract wasn't
on my mind," he says. "I'm so happy it's done."

Then there's Ozolinsh, who had a goal and eight assists during
the 12-game streak and not only provided firepower from the
backline but also some welcome levity. "I still suck from being
away," Ozolinsh complained last Friday. "I can't make a pass."
Reminded of an excellent pass he had made in the previous game,
Ozolinsh said, "O.K., so I'm good. We're all good. This place is

General Managers' Poll

When asked to name the NHL's most underrated player, five of the
league's 22 general managers who responded chose Flyers forward
Rod Brind'Amour. Centers Pavol Demitra of the Blues, Michael
Peca of the Sabres and Alexei Yashin of the Senators each got
two votes, while 11 other players received one apiece.

At week's end Brind'Amour had 52 points, to rank 11th in the
league in scoring, and had played in 452 consecutive games, the
longest active streak. He has averaged nearly 30 goals per season
over his nine years in the NHL, wins a majority of his face-offs
and plays outstanding defense. Yet Brind'Amour, 28, has never
been voted onto an All-Star team and invariably gets lost in the
shadows cast by star teammates Eric Lindros and John LeClair.

"People don't appreciate how good Brind'Amour is," says one
general manager. "The guy is a competitor. He does all the dirty
work. He plays against the top lines, and he scores. He's
everything you want." Says another voter, "If Lindros or LeClair
or both get hurt, Brind'Amour is capable of carrying that team."

Those who supported Peca, last year's winner of the 1996-97
Selke Trophy as the league's best defensive forward, stressed
that he is also a threat on offense. (Through Sunday he had 20
goals.) Yashin got his votes because, said one of his backers,
"he's an elite player who's not considered an elite player," and
one Demitra supporter said he had "really made himself a player."

Larry Murphy's Record

As a Kings rookie in 1980-81, Larry Murphy set an NHL record for
first-year defensemen by scoring 76 points and, according to
then teammate Dave Lewis, "Murphy had a confidence that bordered
on cockiness. That bothered some veterans, but it didn't take
long to see he was a remarkable player."

So remarkable that when Murphy, now a Red Wing, arrived in the
Detroit dressing room before last Friday's game against the
Avalanche, his teammates gave him a standing ovation. Two hours
later Murphy appeared in his 1,447th game, breaking Tim Horton's
NHL record for defensemen.

Though he's nearly 39 and has played for six teams, Murphy,
whose 1,137 career points through Sunday were third highest
among backliners in league history, hasn't changed much over the
years. Never swift askate or a physical force, he has succeeded
with savvy and outstanding vision. Since the Red Wings acquired
Murphy from the Maple Leafs for future considerations in March
1997, he and Nicklas Lidstrom have formed the NHL's top
defensive pairing. Though he and Lidstrom are regularly called
upon to shut down the opponent's top line, Murphy was still
fourth among NHL defensemen this season in scoring, with 34

COLOR PHOTO: DAVID E. KLUTHO The Avalanche's fortunes got another lift when Sakic (right) was paired with Forsberg.


1998-99 salary: $3.8 million

Los Angeles signed the 33-year-old veteran as a free agent last
summer hoping he would be a valuable playmaker, but through
Sunday he was 22nd among defensemen, with 17 assists.

1998-99 salary: $2.8 million

Calgary claimed the 34-year-old veteran off waivers last summer
hoping that he would be a valuable playmaker, and through Sunday
he led defensemen, with 29 assists.