"They're going to come out hungry next game, they'll forget about this one," Joe Sakic told reporters after seeping St. Louis at home in Denver during the first two games of the Western Conference Finals.
Hungry ain't the half of it. The Blues were famished when they took the ice Wednesday, firing 60 shots at Patrick Roy, four of which hit the net, putting the Blues back in the Series and momentarily satisfying their appetite.
It was the Avalanche that came out desperate for the taste of victory in Game 1. Following their Game 7 explosion against the Kings to advance to the Conference Finals, the Avs looked like the dominant team they had been all season long.
Anybody paying close enough attention to avoid the hysteria that short-sighted fans fall into whenever Roy lets in a goal or the Avs drop a game at home could be certain of only two facts going into this series: Joe Sakic needs to be on his game for the Avs to win and Roy needs to stand on his hand.
Sakic's role was highlighted in Game 1, where he had a hand in every goal, scoring twice with two assists. One of the most dramatic moments in local sports lore came when Sakic faced down Blues goaltender Roman Turek on a penalty shot in the second period. The league's likely MVP going on-on-one against an elite goalie for the lead in the game and the early momentum in the series.
Penalty shots tend to favor the goalie, if a 2/3s save percentage can be considered an advantage when the good goalies routinely save over 90 percent of the shots during a game. Sakic, however, has never missed on a penalty shot. He came in on Turek from the right as 20,000 pairs of white-pom-pom-shaking fans screamed the blood from their lungs, watching Sakic cradle the puck left and right before firing it over Turek's knee to give the Avs the lead, a lead they held on to throughout the next two games.
For a moment, we could all see what it felt like to be Joe Sakic, alone on the ice, the weight of the team's destiny on his shoulders. It was a triumphant moment, but a lonely moment, with no one to congratulate him until Sakic skated to his bench for high fives and celebration.
"That's what he's done all year," teammate Rob Blake said of Sakic's catalytic effect on the team. "He's lifted this team from every possible situation, and he did again tonight."
Good Enough is Not Enough
Around here, Avalanche fans have slipped into the same funk that Braves fans get into when they play in anything less than the World Series. You're inked in for the playoffs at the beginning of the season, and any disruptions in the itinerary can get you run out of town.
The Avalanche, however, have not quite mastered the task of getting to their rightful spot in the Stanley Cup Finals. Especially deep in a playoff season, with injuries and marathon competition wearing them down, they have trouble finding just the right balance for their energies, expending what it takes to win while keeping something in reserve for the next game.
"We learned something in Game 7 -- that we weren't really playing up to our potential," Rob Blake said after the series opener against the Blues. "We had a lot left in our tanks and we had to bring it out. We did that in Game 7, and if you're going to even compete against a team of St. Louis' caliber, you have to have that every night."
Saturday, the Avs made the Blues look like batting practice pitchers. Colorado fired at will from the start in Game 1, dominating the pond and giving second thoughts to anyone impressed by the Blues sweep of Dallas in the previous round. The power play was in rare form, with Milan Hejduk scoring two power play goals with assists from Sakic on each.
The dominant play from the Avs brought out the beast in the Blues, who came at Colorado with a physical, combative attitude that escalated as the game continued. Scott Mellanby and Adam got into the type of fight not seen since Apollo Creed took on Rocky Balboa, and all the refs could do was stand back and keep others from joining in, waiting for a chance to break up the slugfest with a couple of ejections.
"I think it's going to be a bit like what we saw at the end," Roy said of the physical nature of the game. "I'm sure they'll be more and more physical."
"They're going to bring it on at every opportunity," Blake added. "You have to step up your pace, and if you can get in front of somebody, make them stop, make it a little harder for them to get in and get a forecheck, then the better we'll be.... St. Louis is going to get their legs back and they're going to come at as again. That's the same style you're going to see."
From early in the second game, all the way through the third game's double overtime, the Blues were clearly taking the upper hand in grabbing for momentum. They out-shot the Avs in seven of eight periods in that two-game span, forcing Roy stop 30 pucks in Game 2 and 56 in Game 3.
"He's just being Patrick. When Patty plays the way he has we feel pretty comfortable," said Sakic after Game 2, while acknowledging the pressure on the offense to get back to their Game 1 levels. The Avs won the second game without showing their best stuff, and Sakic admitted, "We're going to have to play better in Game 3 if we want to win."
Unfortunately, despite another sterling performance from Roy, the rest of the team was not back to their best for Game 3 in St. Louis Wednesday night. In a game that was even uglier than the previous two, the Blues and Avs compiled 13 penalties in the first period, skating less then nine minutes out of 20 at even strength.
It looked like a good sign that the Avs got three goals with nine different team members contributing to goals and assists. "That's the depth that we have," Blake said after Game 2 of this balanced approach essential to the team's success. "You can never replace a Peter Forsberg [out of the playoffs after having his spleen removed following the Game 7 victory over L.A.]. The fact is here we have other guys that have to all step up their game. We can't have one guy just fill in, that's not possible. We'll rally around the fact that he did what he could for us, he played injured, he played as hard as he could, and we'll rally around that."
Sakic added his own modest take on offensive philosophy, noting, "Teams that win in the past have used 4 lines." Sakic would love to have the spotlight off his play, not because he wants to dodge the pressure but because of his sincere understanding of the team's even strength and depth. But results don't lie. Regardless of how many teammates step up, the Avs need the impenetrable Roy they've had for the entire post-season and the aggressive play-making leadership Sakic exudes to return to the Finals for the first time since their 1996 Stanley Cup Championship season.