There was the late-night bus ride back to the hotel and then the
gathering of the sundry items--toothbrushes, combs, pajama
bottoms--that the Avalanche players had believed they would need
for at least one more trip. The players zipped their suitcases in
silence and then trundled en masse out of the hotel and back onto
the bus. Before long they were rising into the darkness on a
charter plane bound for Denver, staring soberly out at the Dallas
lights receding beneath them. "It was an awful night," says left
wing Dave Reid. "We were supposed to be going to New Jersey the
next day for the finals. We were not supposed to be coming home."

For all their success last season--the Avalanche won its sixth
straight division title, played in the Western Conference finals
for the fourth time in five years and acquired Raymond Bourque
for its defense--the team arrived in training camp haunted by that
dreary May 27 night when its season ended with a 3-2 loss to the
Stars in Game 7 of the conference finals. "It was the most
frustrating loss I've had since I began running the team," says
Pierre Lacroix, who's entering his seventh season as Colorado's
general manager. "We're not shy about saying this: The better
team lost."

Lacroix has a case. Colorado dropped Games 4 and 5 of that series
despite outshooting the Stars by a combined 70-35, and the
Avalanche's multifaceted offense was often thwarted only by the
near flawless play of Dallas goalie Ed Belfour. Yet is it
coincidence that this was the second year in a row that Colorado
bowed out in Game 7 in Dallas? Does this team, which fell behind
3-0 in a match it needed to win to go to the finals, have the
mettle to be a champion? "When you lose you come back for
revenge," says Avalanche center Peter Forsberg. "There's only one
team that wins [the Cup], and we have to make sure we're that
team this time."

To a man his teammates echo Forsberg's single-mindedness, and
that's why, along with the fact that Colorado has
All-Star-caliber depth at every position, the Avalanche is our
pick to win the Stanley Cup this season. Colorado last won in
1996, yet its near misses since then have given it the hunger of
a long-starved team. "We're impatient," says center Chris Drury.
"There are guys in this room who won't be here forever."

If last season's failure weren't motivation enough, how's this to
lend a sense of urgency: Three of the Avalanche's five most
important players may be a long way from Denver by this time next
year. Forsberg, the game's best forward after the Penguins'
Jaromir Jagr, and top-tier defenseman Adam Foote will almost
certainly be back, but what about these three players?

Patrick Roy. He's 35, has won three Cups in 15 seasons and is on
the verge of becoming the NHL's alltime winningest goalie. Roy,
who was 32-21-8 with a 2.28 goals-against average last season, is
still one of the best in the game, yet his mobility has decreased
noticeably in recent years, which is why he shed 12 pounds in the
off-season. "This is an important year," says Roy. In July, Roy
will be an unrestricted free agent, and so far he has not been
offered a contract extension by the team.

Joe Sakic. He's the team captain and perhaps the game's top
offensive center. At 31, he's got plenty of dazzling hockey left
in him, but where will he be playing? Sakic, who had 81 points in
60 games last season, becomes an unrestricted free agent on July
1 and says he doesn't want to negotiate until next summer.
Lacroix feels sure that Sakic will test the market.

Bourque. Well into the evensong of his marvelous but Cupless
21-year career, the five-time Norris Trophy winner came back from
the brink of retirement at 39 for a final run at the holy grail.
It was a Bourque shot with 12 seconds left in that fateful Game 7
against Dallas that wing Adam Deadmarsh deflected past Belfour,
only to have the puck glance off the post.

Moments later Colorado's season was over, and the players
solemnly left the ice to begin the long trek home. "None of us
have forgotten that night," says Drury. "We don't plan on going
through that again."

--Kostya Kennedy

COLOR PHOTO: DAVID E. KLUTHO Sakic and the Avalanche are shooting for redemption--and the Stanley Cup--after last season's bitter ending.

Fast Fact
Defenseman Ray Bourque holds the records for most postseason
games played (193) and most playoff points (170) without
winning a Stanley Cup.



FORWARDS 1 Led by Forsberg, this unit is fast
and skilled

DEFENSE 3 Bourque and Foote form dominant pairing

GOALTENDING 4 Roy still one of game's best

SPECIAL TEAMS 7 Lots of firepower makes power play

MANAGEMENT 6 Lacroix isn't afraid to pull off
blockbuster deals