There are nine stitches on the right cheek of Peter Forsberg, an inch-long, purplish wound that traces the bone midway between his nose and ear. The NHL could use that zipper on the Colorado Avalanche center's long, boyish face as its logo for North America's traveling blood-donor clinic—sometimes called the first week of the playoffs—but in Denver and Edmonton last week, the straight line of sutures served as a Rorschach test. Everyone saw it differently. The stitches, courtesy of a slash by Oilers winger Bill Guerin in Game 1, were grounds for what should have been a suspension (according to Colorado), were an excuse for Avalanche whining (said Edmonton) and were "cute" (in the view of Forsberg's girlfriend, Koli Chapel). They provoked name-calling in a Denver newspaper (which labeled Guerin a "butcher"), inspired a fractured fable from Oilers president Glen Sather ("This reminds me of the nursery rhyme where the little boy goes up the hill three times and cries wolf") and elicited more invective over any cut since the Florida Marlins' payroll.
The only person seemingly able to keep a straight, albeit scarred, face was Forsberg. He thought Guerin's slash in the frantic closing seconds of the first game was "kind of dirty," but he had difficulty publicly working himself up into a lather over what, in the technical language of playoff hockey, was a boo-boo. Colorado captain Joe Sakic did say, however, that Forsberg was bitter, less about the slash than about the Avalanche's 3-2 loss. The next day Forsberg told teammates he was going to have a big game, a surprise not because he is incapable of one but because Forsberg usually lets his play speak for itself. He doesn't get mad. He gets even.
Colorado got more than even, taking a 2-1 series lead with a nervous 5-4 overtime victory on Sunday in Edmonton. As whispers about internal troubles swirled around hockey's most gifted team, Forsberg grabbed the series by the throat and squeezed. He was in on eight of the Avalanche's 12 goals through three games, scoring four of them. Everything Forsberg did was monumental, either in its beauty (he dominated Game 2 with two goals and three assists in Colorado's 5-2 win) or its stupidity (the slashing penalty he took in overtime of Game 3).
Like Frankenstein's monster—another amalgamation with scars—Forsberg is a piece of work. Oilers assistant coach Bob McCammon says that Forsberg has the meanness of Mark Messier, the dirtiness of Ken Linseman, the smarts of Wayne Gretzky and the strength of Bryan Trottier. Avalanche coach Marc Crawford says that Forsberg's competitiveness sets him apart from "ordinary superstars." As Forsberg lay on a table in the Colorado trainer's room after Game 1, a mask covering all of his face but the gash, his coach was at a press conference complaining that Edmonton had gotten away with murder against Forsberg. Considering that Forsberg had scored both goals, Oilers captain Kelly Buchberger later said, "Maybe we didn't play him tough enough."
Forsberg's sutures might have been stitches in time for a team that has the potential to win multiple Stanley Cups but sometimes looks as out of sync as a spaghetti western. In the first three games against Edmonton the 1996 champions—given their collective 24 rings—played with a surprising lack of poise, looking jittery whenever an Oilers forward attacked with speed, and frittering away leads with stunning lapses. The Avalanche gave up three goals in a 3:49 stretch of the third period of Game 1 and two in 81 seconds that sent Game 3 into overtime. Uncharacteristically, goalie Patrick Roy was merely ordinary.
Colorado had meandered through the final seven weeks of the regular season, winning just eight of its last 22 games, a span that included a six-game losing streak. There were reasons for the slump: the knee injury Sakic sustained at the Olympics; Forsberg's pulled groin muscle, which sidelined him for seven games; mental fatigue among the nine players the team sent to Nagano; and a comfort level that reflected the standings. "We had nothing to play for," Forsberg says. "We were locked into that [No. 2 seed in the Western Conference]. For a long, long time there was frustration in the room. Guys were saying, 'C'mon boys, we have to start winning,' but we kept on losing." The losses were a swampy breeding ground for rumors.
A quote from an anonymous Avalanche player in The Denver Post on April 15 said, "Crawford is losing it [the dressing room]"—no Colorado player would repeat that sentiment either on or off the record last week—and during a Hockey Night in Canada panel discussion on April 18, a Toronto sportswriter suggested that Crawford's job was in jeopardy. Crawford was sufficiently annoyed by the panel discussion to request an audiotape of it from the CBC. About 90 minutes before Game 1 he was on the telephone with one of the panelists, commentator John Davidson, discussing what had been said. Crawford might be a candidate for a sacking based solely on the actuarial tables for NHL coaches—he has been with the organization for four years, about the shelf life for anyone not named Scotty Bowman. But while Avalanche general manager Pierre Lacroix left himself a nobody-knows-the-future out, he did say last week that Crawford, who has a year remaining on his contract, would be back.
"This stuff is all fiction," Lacroix said about the supposed discord in Colorado. "This circle of [reporters] sits around and says there's a problem and that I know about it and I'm letting it go, which makes me [seem like] an idiot. I'm close enough to know if there is a cancer on the team. There is no cancer."
There were also intimations in print of a rift between Crawford and Roy, which the high-maintenance goalie dismissed as bilge. "I heard about that, and it hurt me a lot because I really like Marc Crawford," Roy said. "All around, he's probably the best coach I've ever had. I had a great relationship with Jacques [Demers, who coached Roy with the Montreal Canadiens] but it might even be better with Cro."
Why shouldn't it be? Crawford has played Roy just about all the time, including in the loss to Finland in the Olympic bronze medal match, when a switch to backup Martin Brodeur would have been the best chance to reenergize Canada after its crushing shoot-out loss to the Czech Republic. The coach also has stoutly defended the goalie's excesses, which include his picking an April Fools' Day fight with Detroit Red Wings goalie Chris Osgood and his habit of overhandling the puck. "The coaching staff accepts when I make a mistake, and I'm the first one to protect [Crawford] if anybody gives it to him," Roy said in a deserted locker room on the off day after Game 1. "And our slump didn't worry me. We were playing teams that were battling for position. For some teams, the playoffs started a while ago. For us, maybe it didn't even start [with Game 1] but will start tomorrow."