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Marathon Men 

The Colorado Avalanche pick up the pace and return to the Stanley Cup Finals

click to enlarge Goalie extraordinaire Patrick Roy with another beautiful save - DARRALD BENNETT
  • Darrald Bennett
  • Goalie extraordinaire Patrick Roy with another beautiful save

Pucks come to Joe Sakic likes moths to a flame. Better yet, like bugs to a windshield, speeding in from all directions and sticking so smoothly you'd think they'd become one with the stick.

It happens from one end of the ice to the other. Insert Sakic in a tangle of stainless steel skates and wood, and the puck finds his stick, miraculously keeping up with him as he spins, stops short, reverses and escapes the melee, nets in his sights.

In Game 5 Monday night, after seeking out Sakic's stick on stray passes from Blues skaters, on wild ricochets off the boards, and from amidst a grappling cluster of hard-hitting players hungry for control, the puck snuck through a hole between rookie goalie Brent Johnson's legs, pecked the wood that extends not from Sakic's hands, but from his imagination, and slipped into the net to send the Avalanche to the Stanley Cup Finals.

"I just fed Rob," Sakic said after the game, describing the set-up pass to Blake. "He's got a cannon, and he let it go. I think it knocked through [Johnson's] leg. It was real easy to chip it into the empty net."

It was the second straight victory in three straight playoff overtime decisions. When Stephane Yelle, who won Game 4 with an overtime goal, was asked if he gave Sakic any pointers on scoring in overtime, he could only laugh. "That's a good one," Yelle acknowledged. "Joe knows how to score, so I try not to get into his business."

Despite his prowess on the ice, Sakic never makes it look easy. He pulls down airbound pucks like a lacrosse defensemen, somehow growing pockets in his thin, flat stick, mesmerizing with his uncanny control and leading a team practiced in the art of the improbable.

The Avalanche as a whole have resisted taking the easy route since their last trip to the Stanley Cup Finals five years ago. Their hard-won home-ice advantage paid off as the entire Pepsi Center became animate, rippling with tension as the Blues tried to stop the Avalanche's inevitable progress. The rink breathes, visibly, when someone is knocked against the far glass in an anxious third period; the half reflection that captures both battling players and fans tied up in knots is shimmering, throbbing in the aftermath. And 20 minutes later, the clean translucence of a new overtime period is exactly what the Avalanche want as they prepare to enact the art of vengeance on the not-so-innocently bystanding Blues, who represent every hockey team that has ever stood in the way of the team's reunion with destiny.

The first sound anybody heard upon entering the Avalanche locker room celebration after Monday's victory was Patrick Roy's whooping as he picked up his young son and spun him around in a moment of ecstasy. The normally reserved Roy is not one to express joy gratuitously in front of the press, generally measuring his words and repeating his refrain of taking one save at a time and giving his team a chance to win. But Monday was payday.

Back behind the nets at the Avalanche practice rink the white wall is riddled with black marks from the pucks shot wide of Patrick Roy. At first glance, Roy looks as impenetrable as he is deep in a double-overtime, but the drills on this Sunday skate seem aimed at building the confidence of the offensive lines, not the man in the crease. The drills range from the rare five-on-five to the more frequently lopsided five-on-four to practice the power play, five-on-three, five-on-two, and ultimately five-on-Roy.

Even veterans like Blake and Sakic seem to take a moment's pride in getting past the pads of Patty Roy, but the goaltender is not demoralized by the pucks collecting in the net behind him. When an unanticipated shot slips through, he takes a moment to practice the moves that he will rifle through at warp speed in Monday night's game -- the dives, the stretches, the carefully meditated motions that turn to instinct when the season goes on the line. He checks the extension of his skate in the air behind him, knee on the ice, registering the range of this shield and turning the knowledge into muscle memory.

Roy's preparation is legendary, from the hard work in the crease to the meticulous attention to detail in his ritualistic preparations on game day. Of all the routines he puts himself through, bordering on -- if not immersed in -- superstition, he cites his final exercise as the most important.

"The last thing I do when the National Anthem is done, I look at the net and I try to visualize it as small as possible. It makes me feel good," Roy said after practice Sunday. When the visualization is effective, opposing skaters can barely see the net behind the towering presence of the game's greatest goaltender.

Monday may have been the best game the Avalanche played in the series against the Blues, and that ability to play your best game when your best game is needed (without waiting for the extravagance of a Game 7) is what champions are made of. The Avalanche came onto the ice as focused as they'd been in the post-season, aggressively attacking during penalty kills, challenging the offense players behind the Blues' net when most man-down defenses stay back in their own zone. The veteran defense, led by Blake, Ray Bourque and Adam Foote, was as confident as they've been in a dozen games, declaring possession of the pond and refusing to give any quarter to the Blues.

"It's very encouraging, because I can feel my team peaking at the right time," said head coach Bob Hartley after winning the Western Conference championship. "As a coach, you can't ask for much more than this. It's a good sensation out there."

"That's why we play," Hartley continued. "From the first day of training camp, you always try to bring your team a step closer to the Cup. It's a long marathon, trust me." After three straight overtime games against the Blues, the Avalanche are in prime shape to finish off the marathon against the defending champion New Jersey Devils. Hartley doesn't mind taking a couple days to rest, regroup, and say a prayer or two (team doctor David Mellman is floating the scientific possibility, albeit improbable, that spleenless Peter Forsberg could return before the post-season is over).

"We're playing good hockey right now," Hartley concluded, mastering the understatement. "Might as well get it on."


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