Chillin' Out After a disappointing regular season, usually bellicose Avalanche star Peter Forsberg has kept his cool and gotten hot

May 14, 2000

Colorado Avalanche coach Bob Hartley said he'd turned on his
computer last Friday morning, seen an E-mail entitled I LOVE YOU
and assumed Scotty Bowman had sent him a warm greeting--a joke
taken from the morning's headlines but tinged with an irony that
might have escaped even Hartley. The Love Bug really had struck.
The Avalanche and Bowman's Detroit Red Wings, who for three of
the past four springs had bickered like six-year-olds over the
last brownie, mercifully completed a Stanley Cup series last
week without the aid of a psychiatrist or a bail bondsman. The
rivalry finally has cooled from insane to merely heated, an
evolution that has paralleled Colorado's increasing dominance:
The Avalanche has won eight of its last nine playoff games
against Detroit, including a reasonably tame 4-2
series-clinching victory in Game 5 at home on Friday.

After that game the teams engaged in the traditional postseries
handshakes, repaired to their dressing rooms to slather
compliments on each other and then, for all anybody knows, went
out together for a marshmallow roast. There are marked advantages
in substituting etiquette for a tourniquet, as the
once-incorrigible Colorado center Peter Forsberg has found out.
Forsberg's brilliance comes from a unique amalgam of skills,
styles and attitudes. If you borrowed a dollop of Jaromir Jagr's
intimidating strength on the puck, a drop of Paul Kariya's speed,
a dash of John LeClair's stevedore toughness, a pinch of Teemu
Selanne's finesse, a healthy dose of Michael Peca's bodychecking
skills and a full measure of Steve Yzerman's commitment to
playing all 200 feet of the ice, the product would be a rough
approximation of Forsberg.

He isn't the NHL's best player--"Some would argue I'm not even in
the top 10," Forsberg says--but he has the broadest set of skills.
The only facet of his game that's diminished these days is
surliness. Forsberg, 26, used to play with a chip on his
shoulder, a shoulder he would attempt to drive into anybody who
had the temerity to knock him down or even look at him cockeyed.
Forsberg was a vigilante, his style as self-destructive as it was
eye-catching.

"Pete got into problems looking for stuff," says Avalanche
captain Joe Sakic. "He got tired playing that way, and it took
him away from his real strengths. When he's avoiding
confrontations, when he's more rested, we're all better off. I've
talked to him. We've all talked to him for a long time, and he
just said, 'I know. I know.'"

Forsberg, who was shifted to left wing early in the first round,
which freed him from some down-low defensive responsibilities,
finally applied the oft-taught lesson. After having had more
penalty minutes than points in the postseason for the past two
years, he shunned his role as judge, jury and executioner against
Detroit and scored three game-deciding goals, set up the other
winner and made several plays worthy of being stored on a
virus-free floppy disk. "The general feeling on Forsberg is he
wants to prove you're not going to push him around," Yzerman, the
Wings' captain, said on Friday night. "This series he played more
disciplined than he has in the past. He's matured a bit, and now
he doesn't get off his game. We would have rather had him running
around trying to hit people than getting the puck and trying to
make a play."

Almost five minutes into the third period on Friday, Forsberg
fired a tracer that shot past the glove of goalie Chris Osgood
into the Detroit net. That series-winning goal seemed almost
pedestrian after more than a week of unchecked virtuosity. If
hockey is a game of mistakes, it's also a collection of moments.
Forsberg had at least one moment in every game, leaving an
imprint that had nothing to do with his elbow and a Red Wing's
face.

He warmed up with a tip-in goal in Game 1 and then won Game 2
with a play notable not only for its deftness but also for the
two defensemen he victimized. On a four-on-three power play,
Forsberg burst in alone on Nicklas Lidstrom, a perennial Norris
Trophy finalist. Lidstrom dutifully pokechecked the puck, but it
struck Forsberg's shin pad and caromed back onto his stick.
Forsberg danced past Lidstrom, then pulled the puck inside to
avoid the sliding Chris Chelios, a three-time Norris winner,
before beaming one into the top corner. It was a dazzling play
made at freeway speeds. "We're on the bench, and we could hardly
believe it," says Colorado checking winger Dave Reid. "He made
two great players look as silly as rookies."

Although that goal has been rerun more often than a Seinfeld
episode, it was only Forsberg's second most audacious play of the
series. In the Avalanche's 3-1 loss in Game 3, Forsberg was being
hounded by Lidstrom behind the Detroit net. With severely limited
options but seemingly limitless creativity, he passed the puck
through Lidstrom's feet and off the back of the net to himself
before circling for a scoring chance with the flummoxed Lidstrom
in pursuit. "Maybe he got that one from Wayne Gretzky," says Red
Wings scout Mark Howe, a former All-Star defenseman. "Some guys
have that play. I saw [Edmonton Oilers wing] Ryan Smyth do it
twice in one game. What I haven't seen is anybody do that to
Nick."

Two nights later, in the pivotal match of the series, Forsberg
helped Colorado steal a 3-2 overtime victory in Detroit by
chipping the most delicate of passes over Chelios's stick on a
two-on-one, a feed Chris Drury neatly converted. "Peter was the
best player in this series," Lidstrom says. "By far."

Forsberg's offensive production and almost preternatural calm
were a stunning reversal for a player who in 1999-2000 had
slouched through the worst of his six NHL seasons. In 49 games he
scored only 14 goals and had half as many game-winners (two) as
he did in the nine games he played in the first two playoff
rounds. His 37 assists were below his career average of .89 per
game, which was fourth-best in NHL history. "The numbers, as bad
as they were, were actually kind to me, because I didn't play
well at all," Forsberg says. "You play on the power play with
[Raymond] Bourque and Sakic, you're going to get points. But I
wasn't good. I wasn't skating. I wasn't doing anything. It was
frustrating. You start to wonder, Have I lost it?"

Forsberg's season was a series of plateaus and depressions: He
missed the first 23 games while recuperating from off-season
surgery on his left shoulder, returned with two goals and three
assists within two periods against the Calgary Flames on Nov. 27,
went more than three weeks without scoring again, then had points
in 12 straight games. The nadir came after a concussion he
sustained on Feb. 1 against the Vancouver Canucks. He missed five
games, and after he came back, he was listless. His timing was
off. His defense suffered. Colorado closed the regular season
with eight consecutive wins, but Forsberg, who'd had just four
multiple-point games in his last 21 matches before separating his
right shoulder on the final weekend of the season, was eerily
ineffective.

The injuries, especially the concussion, might indirectly have
brought him to his senses. "Maybe getting hurt this year forced
him to change his ways a little bit," Sakic says. "If he wants a
real long career in this league, he's got to keep playing the way
he is now. He used to look for a hit even when he had the puck."

"There was no point I was trying to prove," Forsberg says. "If
there was a guy I didn't like, I was trying to hit him. If there
was a good player with a good team, I tried to hit him. Right now
I'm trying not to run around too much. I was wasting my energy a
bit. I think I've calmed down."

Forsberg's new attitude has inspired the Avalanche. Colorado has
been the flightiest of premier teams, capable of producing 60
minutes of eye candy but so impatient it sometimes looked as if
it wanted to win a best-of-seven series in three games. In
cruising through the Phoenix Coyotes and the Red Wings in the
first two rounds, the Avalanche showed a willingness to chip the
puck out of its zone, play a neutral-zone trap for extended
periods and make a serviceable play when a fancy one wasn't
there. "They've got a little bit better style right now," Bowman
said on Friday, meaning one more suited to playoff success.

Colorado proved resilient and resourceful, winning the series
against Detroit even after Bourque suffered an undisclosed injury
in the second period of Game 3 that forced him to miss the final
two matches. Hartley used 20-year-old rookie Martin Skoula, whom
the Avalanche gave considerable ice time during the season, with
Adam Foote as his top defense pair in Game 4, whereupon Skoula
became an unwitting symbol of everything Colorado is and the
Wings aren't. The Avalanche has been changing on the fly since
winning the Stanley Cup in 1996, general manager Pierre Lacroix
bolstering the nucleus of Forsberg, Sakic, Foote and goalie
Patrick Roy with young talent like Skoula and Drury, whose
ability to dig out pucks and win face-offs has given Forsberg
more offensive liberties. The Red Wings, too, have a promising
rookie defenseman, in Jiri Fischer, but he didn't appear in the
playoffs. In Game 5, five of Detroit's six defensemen were 30 or
older, including the 38-year-old Chelios and the 39-year-old
Larry Murphy. The Wings won the Cup in 1997 and '98 by patching
holes with venerable retreads, but this finger-in-the-dike
process will likely stop now that Detroit has suffered a
consecutive second-round loss to Colorado in what could have been
the Wings' last Stanley Cup threat for a while. The future of
Bowman, who will turn 67 during training camp in September, also
is in question. He says that in the coming weeks he will check
with his usual sources--his doctors; general manager Ken Holland;
his wife, Suella; and his financial planner--before deciding
whether to come back.

Forsberg is back, hardly less intimidating and even more
effective. He will still smoke a player on principle--he cleanly
nailed Wings center Sergei Fedorov in the neutral zone in Game
2, one shift after Forsberg had been slashed by Chelios--but now
he takes his lumps without immediately looking to retaliate.
After Friday's victory he bore the faint yellowing remnant of a
blackened right eye and had welts on his left biceps and a
series of cuts around his left wrist that were the inevitable
by-products of the Stanley Cup marathon. Frankly, he never
looked better.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY DAVID E. KLUTHO Air force Despite hits like this one by Steve Duchesne (right), Forsberg remained unchecked against Detroit. TWO COLOR PHOTOS: PHOTOGRAPHS BY DAVID E. KLUTHO Bowed Chelios and the Red Wings ran head-on into the unyielding Sakic and Co., and lost to them for the second straight year.

"Forsberg played more disciplined," said Yzerman. "We'd rather
he ran around trying to hit people instead of making a play."

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)