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Something Like a War
Stealing the wind beneath the Wings

click to enlarge Captain Sakic boldly leads the Avalanche attack - WILLIAM CLARK
  • William Clark
  • Captain Sakic boldly leads the Avalanche attack

Bad blood. Long tradition. Even competition.

There's been little of any of these on the ice over the past two weeks as the Avalanche defeated the Red Wings for the second straight year, taking eight of the last nine play-off games from their Detroit rivals.

Nevertheless, there are few rivalries in sports as dependable as the annual play-off showdown between the Avs and the Wings. This is as exciting as hockey gets, and in past years, the rest of the quest for the Stanley Cup has been anti-climatic.

"We know the rivalry. We know the depth of that team, the talent," Avs Coach Bob Hartley explained after the first game. "If you can't get up for a match-up against the Red Wings, you might as well go home."

On paper, the Avs are a year younger, an inch taller, four pounds heavier and about two dozen Stanley Cup rings less encumbered than their opponents. But they don't play hockey on paper -- the friction slows the puck down, and the skates perform miserably. On the ice, the Avs settled for utter dominance over their heavily favored opponents.

It was rock-'em-sock-'em hockey from the start. The early action in Game 1 saw the Wings pressuring Patty Roy with a flurry of shots from around his net. Ironically, however, the Wings may have been jump-starting their own demoralization. The impenetrable Roy's big saves inspired his team, giving them the confidence to play the rest of the series on their own terms. Roy dismissed the notion that he wishes for tough shots early in the game to pump his team up with big saves. "Some nights I wish I didn't have any shots," Roy joked.


Good wood, if you can get it

Throughout this post season, the resurgent Peter Forsberg has skated well enough to boast a nine-game run featuring five goals and five assists. With three game-winning goals in the Wings series -- and a game-winning assist in the remaining victory -- the only way Forsberg could skate any better is if he landed a triple Lutz, using the momentum to give him even more power on his slapshot.

Forsberg has been virtually unstoppable since returning to play after a late-season injury. "He's focused," said Hartley. "He's outstanding with a puck; he's so creative." Forsberg's doing it all, deflecting shots from Adam Deadmarsh into the net, shooting rockets head-on past goalie Chris Osgood's ear, nose, and throat, passing off to teammates, or using the puck as a diversion, dribbling it down the ice and taking out Red Wings as he throws a stick in the split seconds between slaps of the puck.

"He's very difficult to contain," commented Phoenix coach Bob Francis, the Avs' first-round victim. "He gets everybody's attention. He creates so much open ice for everybody else because we're so concerned with him."

With Forsberg skating so well, Joe Sakic has been able to focus on controlling the neutral zone, creating plays and shutting down opposing centers. Sakic made a non-entity out of Wings star Steve Yzerman. "I wanted to make sure he didn't get a lot of room," Sakic said of his opponent, "Give him some room, he's gonna score." Sakic gave no quarter, and Yzerman was shut out for the entire series.


Bourqued

click to enlarge Patrick Roy prepares to stand on his head - WILLIAM CLARK
  • William Clark
  • Patrick Roy prepares to stand on his head

As exciting as the newly invigorated offense has been, the story of the Avs late season turn-around has been the defense. They're on a mission, eating up penalty-kill minutes with unprecedented gluttony and shutting down the Wings' passing game. To say the defense has been strengthened by Ray Bourque's arrival from Boston is the mother of all understatements. While fans marvel at the enormous amount of impact time Bourque gives the team on the ice and the media speculates about the backlash sure to ensue from overusing him, Hartley quips that "It's only 21 years that he's logged that kind of time, so I don't think it has to be a big surprise."

Bourque came to Colorado with a pedigree as one of the game's premiere defenders and with a determination to win the Cup that has eluded him throughout his career, spreading his passion and leading the team to play with purpose. "We don't mention that we have to win for Ray Bourque," Roy explained after winning the series. "We all want to win for ourselves as well. When Ray came in, we understood the purpose of it and that became an objective that we want to realize for Ray at the same time."

What was even more remarkable than their nearly ceaseless string of victories since acquiring Bourque was their ability to keep on winning after losing him to injury for the final two games against Detroit. The defense never looked better than in the two games it battled to victory without Bourque. As Hartley put it, "When you play as a team you can overcome lots of adversity. Ray's loss was a part of that adversity. Maybe it forced us to roll up our sleeves."


The best defense is a good P.R.

As the Avs prepare for the Western Division Finals against the reigning champion Dallas Stars, all attention will shift to a showdown between Roy and Eddie Belfour in a battle for bragging rights as the game's best netkeeper. "Any great hockey team always relies on a great goalie," Hartley reiterated. "You can talk about our goals-against average, you can talk about the system, you can talk about defense, but it starts there. Patrick has given us tons of big saves at key moments. He's given us confidence. It's very contagious in the dressing room."

One way of measuring Roy's confidence is to watch the unmatched time he spends out of the crease and behind the net. It's part of his head game, turning away from the goal and tapping the puck behind his back with pressure coming on. A bad bounce off the back wall led to the first Wings goal in the series after five shut-out periods.

"I have to be careful on those plays," Roy admitted after the game, but by Game 5, he was even farther out of the crease, intoxicated by the scent of victory. Trying to battle back from a two-goal deficit against Patrick Roy is about as promising as needing two runs in one game off of Randy Johnson.

"He was the deciding factor," Sakic said of Roy's play in the series. "He really stood on his head."

Forsberg joined the chorus of praise, declaring, "The best penalty kill is the goalie, and he played outstanding."


Warriors, come out to play

With two convincing victories in back-to-back years, there's talk that the rivalry may be waning. "The guys who really started it all aren't on the teams now," admitted Sakic, "but hockeywise, it's two pretty evenly matched teams. You're not going to see the fisticuffs that you once saw, but I think the hockey's still pretty good between the two teams."

The rivalry could take a further blow if speculation proves true that future Hall of Fame Wings Coach Scotty Bowman might retire during the offseason. But as the only coach to ever beat Bowman in two consecutive play-off years, Hartley is not ready to gloat. "Maybe 30 years from now, when I'll be in my rocking chair with my grandkids, maybe that's something that I'll be able to tell them." Until then, Hartley is focused on the one thing better than beating the Wings: taking home the Stanley Cup.

The Red Wings are resigned to spending a long off-season licking the wounds of their rivalry. The Avalanche, however, have other battles to wage. "We're counting on 23 solid warriors," says Hartley.

And come this weekend in Dallas, the warriors will be out to play.

-- owen@csindy.com

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