Step inside Pepsi Center these days for a Colorado Avalanche game, and you won't find much living in the past.
Look around in the stands, and you might see a few Joe Sakic, Peter Forsberg or Patrick Roy sweaters. But not many.
Look up high to the rafters, and you'll spot the banners that truly are far away. Eight consecutive division titles, from 1996 through 2003, and the Stanley Cup championships of 1996 and 2001. But nothing in the past eight seasons, going on nine now.
So when the Avs took the ice Saturday against Edmonton, there was no reason to expect much. Colorado had started the season with the amazing feat of winning its first six road games — not pushovers, either, but Boston, Columbus, Ottawa, Montreal, Toronto and Chicago, all in the month of October. Yet, at the same time, the Avalanche quickly developed an exasperating habit, dropping five of the first six home games. And now, coming off two more home defeats, the Avs were 9-12-1 for the season, but much more disturbingly, an abysmal 3-8 in Denver.
That's how coaches lose their jobs, and rumors had begun to swirl around third-year Colorado coach Joe Sacco. The front office was not interested in being out of the playoff picture by Thanksgiving. It didn't matter that Sacco could count two ex-Avs from the glory years, Adam Deadmarsh and Sylvain Lefebvre, as assistants. In the midst of the season's longest homestand (eight games), even neutral observers were unsure if Sacco could last much longer.
Perhaps because of the holiday, a near-capacity crowd of 17,684 showed up, the most since a sellout for the home opener against Detroit (a loss, of course). But the fans weren't in a festive mood, and after Colorado couldn't capitalize on a power play for the final 1:23 of the second period, which ended with Edmonton leading 2-1, they booed the Avs off the ice.
Yes, booed. And you had to figure, the final 20 minutes might seal Sacco's fate if nothing changed. The players had to know. They weren't loafing, but they had no spark. Nobody taking charge, amplifying an issue that had been problematic for weeks.
Then, six minutes into the final period, with another power-play chance, Colorado came to life. Defenseman Shane O'Brien scored his first goal of the season. Moments later, 20-year-old rookie defenseman Stefan Elliott, playing his first National Hockey League game after being called up from the minors, made an aggressive play to stop a 2-on-1 break. Back on the offensive end, just 10 seconds of play after his defensive stop, Elliott fired a 55-foot wrist shot into the net — his first NHL goal, giving Colorado a 3-2 lead with 11:57 remaining.
That boost from Elliott, the Avs' second-round 2009 draft pick, changed everything. Two more late goals wrapped up the 5-2 victory, and the fans who had been booing stayed to give Elliott one last roar when he took the first-star curtain call.
Did it mean anything? Perhaps not. Monday night, the Avs returned to their comatose ways in a 3-1 home loss to Dallas, not scoring until the final four minutes. Defense, OK. Forwards, sporadic at best. Leadership, invisible.
There are no Sakics, Forsbergs or Roys on this Colorado roster. Just a collection of younger players and veterans who should be winning more but, for some reason, have been underachieving. It might take a coaching change, and more smart personnel moves, to push the Avs back into the NHL's upper class.
We'll know more in the next month.
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