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Now or Never
Michael Farber
April 16, 2001
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
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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

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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."

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 defense-men, 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.

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