Another Bold Stroke
For the third straight year Pierre Lacroix put Colorado in
position to win the Cup, this time by trading for Rob Blake

Each year at about this time Avalanche general manager Pierre
Lacroix makes the league's most dramatic bid for the Stanley Cup.
In February 1999, he acquired 5'6" snaggle-toothed sniper Theo
Fleury in a trade with the Flames, and last year he nabbed
legendary defenseman Ray Bourque in a deal with the Bruins. Last
week the putative Cup-clinching acquisition came in the form of
6'4", 227-pound Norris Trophy candidate Rob Blake from the Kings.
"Does getting me mean they've got the Cup?" asked Blake after his
first practice with the Avalanche last Saturday. "I hope it
does."

Fleury and Bourque helped Colorado skate tantalizingly close to
the chalice--it lost Game 7 of the Western Conference finals both
years--and the addition of Blake, 31, immediately transformed the
already imposing Avalanche, which had an NHL-best 40-12-9-2
record through Sunday, into what Red Wings general manager Ken
Holland calls "the overwhelming favorite to win."

To get Blake, who will be an unrestricted free agent after the
season, and useful third-line rookie center Steven Reinprecht,
the Avalanche surrendered 25-year-old right wing Adam Deadmarsh,
29-year-old defenseman Aaron Miller, a first-round pick in the
2001 draft and future considerations. "We made this move because
we want to play the last game in June," says Lacroix. "We had
enough assets so that we could offer them a bouquet of things."

While rumors in recent weeks had Blake going to another
contender, such as the Blues, Flyers, Maple Leafs or Red Wings,
Lacroix quietly went to work. In early February he phoned Kings
general manager Dave Taylor and said, "If you're serious about
moving Rob Blake, call me back. But only if you're serious,
because we are. We did it with Fleury and Bourque, and we can do
it again."

After Taylor's last-ditch efforts to re-sign Blake failed on Feb.
16--Blake declined a three-year, $24 million extension--Taylor
returned the call to Lacroix. Over the next week the two general
managers spoke twice a day. When the deal was completed, Taylor
said it was "by far the best offer we got from anyone."

Los Angeles did well to land two solid regulars in their prime,
but Lacroix, who pushed for the inclusion of the nifty
Reinprecht, could afford to pay a fair price for the big chalupa.
Excellent drafting in recent years has loaded Colorado with so
many good forwards--Chris Drury, 24, Milan Hejduk, 25, and Alex
Tanguay, 21, to name three--that not even the loss of the gutsy
and talented Deadmarsh should hurt the Avalanche. The only ones
who should suffer are Colorado's conference foes, who are now
under greater pressure to deal as the March 13 trade deadline
approaches. "Do you respond?" says Holland. "How do you respond
to someone getting Rob Blake?"

Probably with a heavy sigh. In Blake, who led NHL blueliners with
18 goals, the Avalanche landed one of the league's top three
defensemen: a player with a 100-mph slap shot who also skates
well, moves the puck smartly and can obliterate opponents with a
vaudevillian thrust of his backside. "I saw this big ass coming
at me, and I didn't think much of it," Oilers winger Anson Carter
once said of Blake's patented hip check. "Then it pretty much
broke me in half."

Blake's long-term future in Colorado will remain uncertain until
after the season. He has no desire to lose his bargaining power
and sign before then, and Lacroix doesn't negotiate during the
season. "When I met with Pierre, there was no contract talk at
all," says Blake. "He was only focused on this year. It was all
about the playoffs."

Paired with Bourque, Blake played 25 minutes in his Avalanche
debut last Friday and assisted on the first goal in a 4-1 home
win over the Wild. On power plays Colorado sent out Blake,
Bourque, Hejduk, Peter Forsberg and Joe Sakic, with Patrick Roy
minding the net--all six were starters in last month's All-Star
Game. "That's amazing," Drury said after scoring two goals
against Minnesota. "I guess we should be favored to win the Cup."

Wild Captaincy
Minnesota's 'C' Change

After he was named captain on Jan. 1, the first thing Minnesota
defenseman Brad Bombardir did was clamp forward Steve McKenna in
a celebratory hug. "I was the one congratulating him," says
Bombardir. "He had put his money on me."

There have been several such wagering opportunities in the
Minnesota dressing room this season because coach Jacques Lemaire
has instituted the NHL's only rotating captaincy. On the first of
each month Lemaire and his staff assemble the players and produce
a folded Wild sweater with only the vaunted "C" visible. They
talk for a while about what the current captain has done for the
club, discuss the players whom the coaches had considered to
succeed him and then shake out the sweater to reveal the name of
the latest leader. "We came up with the idea before the season,"
says Lemaire, who deserves consideration as coach of the year for
guiding the expansion Wild to a 22-28-8-3 record through Sunday.
"It gives the guys something to work for and take pride in."

Minnesota's inaugural captain, defenseman Sean O'Donnell, was
followed by left wing Scott Pellerin in November, center Wes
Walz in December and then Bombardir. When the Wild assembled on
Feb. 1, Lemaire confounded his players by naming Bombardir
again. "Nobody had bet on me that time," says Bombardir. "It's
an honor to have been named once, let alone twice. This thing
has definitely been a motivation for us--Wes skated a victory
lap when he was named."

Minnesota plans to continue the practice next season. "It's the
coming wave," says general manager Doug Risebrough. "You're going
to see other teams do it because of the way our guys have
responded."

For the latest scores and stats, plus more news and analysis from
Michael Farber and Kostya Kennedy, go to cnnsi.com/hockey.

COLOR PHOTO: DAVID E. KLUTHO COLOR PHOTO: J. MCISAAC/B. BENNETT STUDIOS COLOR PHOTO: B. BENNETT/B. BENNETT STUDIOS COLOR PHOTO: L. MEYER/B. BENNETT STUDIOS

WHOM WOULD YOU RATHER HAVE?

ERIC LINDROS C
FLYERS

The former MVP would be the best player in almost any trade
Philly makes to unload him--including last week's aborted deal
that would have brought the two Toronto players and the draft
pick to the Flyers. Yet Lindros, 28, hasn't played regularly in
more than a year, and his history of concussions is so ominous
that his lawyer, Gord Kirke, said on Feb. 21, "Sitting out this
year wouldn't be the worst thing for Eric's health."

OR

NIK ANTROPOV C,
DANNY MARKOV D,
NO. 1 DRAFT PICK
MAPLE LEAFS

At 21, the 6'5", 205-pound Antropov has the potential to become
an imposing two-way pivot, but after a strong rookie year in
1999-2000 he underwent knee surgery and through Sunday had only
four goals in 33 games this season. Markov, 24, is an excellent
puck-moving defenseman but is sidelined with a back injury that
worries the Flyers. Given the Leafs' record (28-21-10-4), the
2001 draft pick will likely be a mid-rounder.

The Verdict: A healthy Lindros can dominate, but his career could
end with one hit. Toronto's package isn't overwhelming, but we'll
take it.

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)