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Now or Never The pressure is on talent-rich Colorado, the NHL's best regular-season club, to win another Stanley Cup, or the Avalanche is likely to be dismantled

April 16, 2001
April 16, 2001

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April 16, 2001

Now or Never The pressure is on talent-rich Colorado, the NHL's best regular-season club, to win another Stanley Cup, or the Avalanche is likely to be dismantled

There are moments when right wing Chris Drury looks around and
imagines he's not in the Colorado Avalanche dressing room but in
an annex of the Hockey Hall of Fame. The venerable defenseman
lacing his skates is Raymond Bourque, the guy with the wispy
beard is center Peter Forsberg, the quiet one is center Joe
Sakic, the Bunyanesque figure is defenseman Rob Blake, and the
brash one is Patrick Roy, the top money goalie of his generation.
Collectively these players have won three Conn Smythe, six
Norris, two Calder, three Vezina and four Jennings trophies,
enough hardware to fill an aisle at Home Depot. "I don't do it
often, you know, these guys are just teammates," says Drury, the
1999 rookie of the year and one of 11 Avalanche players who have
a good chance to be Olympians in 2002. "Still, every once in a
while I step back and think, Wow, what talent in here."

This is an article from the April 16, 2001 issue Original Layout

In bronze, as a handful of Hall-bound Avalanche will be captured
one day, the players will look even more imposing. The question
now is whether the Avalanche, as alluring as Jennifer Lopez on
Oscar night, will become busts immediately.

Though Colorado won the Presidents' Trophy, which might as well
be named after Al Gore for all that accumulating the most
regular-season points is worth, the Avalanche still has to win
the Stanley Cup recount. As much as skill, the playoffs test a
team's mettle, something Colorado--even with home ice
advantage--still must prove as it attempts to pick its way through
a Western Conference minefield that also includes the dangerous
Detroit Red Wings and the savvy Dallas Stars, followed by a
presumptive final against the defending champion New Jersey
Devils, the league's most complete team. Clearly, the Avalanche
has the most at stake. The Cup would reward general manager
Pierre Lacroix for his enterprise in amassing premier talent, be
the ultimate thank you to the 40-year-old Bourque for a grand
career and make a convincing argument that Roy is not merely the
winningest NHL goalie but also the best in history.

A franchise that has won seven straight division titles and one
Cup, in 1996, the Avalanche also has the most to lose. Lacroix
made his annual late-winter trade for an impact player, spiriting
Blake from the Los Angeles Kings for two quality players (forward
Adam Deadmarsh and defenseman Aaron Miller), a prospect and a
high draft choice. But after grabs of Theo Fleury in '99 and
Bourque last year, neither of whom paid off with a championship,
even Colorado's seemingly inexhaustible supply of trading assets
is starting to become depleted. What's more, the risks Lacroix
has taken have grown exponentially--Blake, Roy and Sakic can be
unrestricted free agents this summer, and Bourque may retire.
"Decisions will be made when this is all over," says Lacroix.

If the Avalanche stumbles--only three regular-season champions
have won the Cup since 1989--Colorado likely will be reconfigured.
"This is the moment for our team," Roy says. "We all understand
that. We know the only way to control our destiny is to win the
Stanley Cup. The organization always has given us a chance, and
we believe in ourselves."

Roy, 35, never has been afflicted by self-doubt, his confidence
grounded in winning the 1986 Cup and the Conn Smythe as a rookie
with the Montreal Canadiens. He also won the chalice in '93 (with
Montreal) and '96 (with Colorado), all the Cups coming when his
team entered the playoffs as a long shot. This is mere
happenstance and of no particular interest to Roy. Since passing
Terry Sawchuk in October for most career victories--Roy already
held the record for playoff wins (121)--he has inhabited a world
measured only by victories and consistent play.

Roy claims he doesn't mind the high-scoring games in which the
Avalanche occasionally indulges, an offensive bent that has not
been reflected in Roy's personal-best 2.21-goals-against average
and a .913 save percentage in line with his .908 career mark. He
handles the puck more thoughtfully, and less frequently, than
ever. Roy, who narrowed his stance in late March after watching
tapes of himself in the '93 playoffs, still possesses the one
skill common to all elite goalies: He forces shooters to put the
puck around him instead of through him.

However, the emperor's new clothes in recent playoffs have been
off the rack. Roy has dropped three straight Game 7s, to the
Stars' Ed Belfour in the Western Conference finals in the past
two seasons and to the Edmonton Oilers' Curtis Joseph in the
first round the year before that. Including Canada's stirring
1998 Olympic semifinal against Dominik Hasek of the Czech
Republic and the less significant bronze-medal match against
Finland, Roy has lost five straight deciding games.

While the conventional approach to attacking Roy had been to
shoot high because his butterfly style blocked the bottom of the
net, Dallas rewrote the book during the last couple of playoffs.
The Stars tried keeping their shots on the ice, especially to
Roy's stick side, because he's not particularly tidy with
rebounds. Rather than hoping to have the extra split second it
takes to lift a shot, Dallas forced rebounds and drove to the net
to pressure the Avalanche defensemen, who had to fish among their
skates for the puck. A late-season return from injury by Blake
(sprained right knee) and banging defenseman Adam Foote
(separated right shoulder) should help protect that Achilles'
heel, perhaps the only part of the anatomy the top Colorado
players haven't hurt in recent years. Even the hardy Roy had
tendinitis in his right knee in late March, an ailment he
dismisses as trivial though it forced him to miss a game.

Colorado is especially vulnerable to injury because the gap
between its stars and its role players is so pronounced. Coach
Bob Hartley makes his living with the two top lines, led by Sakic
and Forsberg. (Sakic, who finished three points behind the
Pittsburgh Penguins' Jaromir Jagr in the league scoring race, led
Western Conference forwards with an average of 23:01 of ice time;
only 23 forwards in the league averaged more minutes per game
than Forsberg's 20:47.) The star centers are wonderful security
blankets, but like your kid's Binky, even they can wear out.

No team has survived the Bataan death march to a Cup with a
shortened bench since the 1994 New York Rangers. The past six
champions have had at least three dependable lines and, in the
cases of two-time winners New Jersey and Detroit, four. Last year
Sakic, among the NHL's fittest forwards, saw his postseason
production dip precipitously: two goals and seven assists in 17
games.

"When it comes to crunch time, Colorado tends to get down to
seven forwards and only three or four defensemen," says a veteran
Western Conference opponent. "The Avalanche's third line [Steve
Reinprecht centering Shjon Podein and Eric Messier] is pretty
good but doesn't get a chance to play as much as it should.
Colorado can send out six defensemen, but doesn't. I don't think
you can get deep into the playoffs that way anymore. There's only
so much Sakic and Forsberg can do, getting pounded every other
night. The Avalanche is going to miss Deadmarsh. He was
Colorado's power forward, the guy who protected Forsberg. He was
also the team's leading point getter last year in the playoffs
[tying Forsberg with 15]. You need a gritty offensive guy in the
playoffs, and Deadmarsh was it. [Ville] Nieminen is doing a nice
job on that line for a first-year player, but he's not
Deadmarsh."

The other Colorado question mark is penalty killing: Given the
quality of personnel, the Avalanche's ranking this season (19)
was absurdly low. Roy prefers that his defenders take away
passing lanes while he worries about the shooter, and with its
stationary penalty-killing box and defenders' active sticks,
Colorado deflects numerous passes. However, the penalty killers
generally haven't attacked on the half boards, allowing shooters
to walk in on Roy. The Avalanche does pressure the puck down low,
but until recently it was allowing the power-play point men too
much time to set up.

Hartley has been tinkering with the penalty killing since
midseason, trying to ratchet up the pressure on the opposition.
It seems to be working. Over a seven-game stretch last month,
Colorado allowed only three power play goals in 33 attempts. "We
understand the importance of penalty killing," Roy says. "We have
to rotate better, and when the point men fumble the puck, we have
to jump on them. Last year during Game 7 in Dallas, the Stars
scored their first two goals [in a 3-2 win] on the power play."

Colorado will be playing not only for a Cup but also for a
legacy, one its players are on the brink of squandering. The 2001
playoffs are their best, if not their last, chance to reestablish
the six-year-old Avalanche as one of the leading teams of its
time, not simply a tease. "You don't want to think about it,"
Foote says, "but if you look at the last five years, with our
talent we should have been there [in the Cup finals] at least one
more time."

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY TIM DEFRISCO SPRING FEVER Roy and Jon Klemm (24) hope to stop all comers, including the Blues' Daniel Corso, and win Colorado's second Stanley CupCOLOR PHOTO: LOU CAPOZZOLACOLOR PHOTO: DAVID E. KLUTHO LAST SHOT Even if the Avalanche falls short of winning the Cup, many observers expect the 40-year-old Bourque to retire after 22 seasons.
WILL THE AVALANCHE, AS ALLURING AS JENNIFER LOPEZ ON OSCAR NIGHT,
BE BUSTS?