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Serious About Stanley
The Avalanche are setting the tableand leaving room for the Cup

click to enlarge Joe Sakic lifts his 36th goal of the season into the nets - behind Thrasher goalie Damian Rhodes - DARRALD BENNETT
  • Darrald Bennett
  • Joe Sakic lifts his 36th goal of the season into the nets behind Thrasher goalie Damian Rhodes

After six straight first-place finishes with only one Stanley Cup to show for it, the Avalanche are getting serious. Not content to run away with their division, the Avs are making moves to solidify their league's best record and assure themselves home ice advantage throughout the playoffs.

The Avs win 71 percent of their home games, as opposed to 58 percent of their road games, and given the fact that they've been knocked out of the playoffs in the decisive seventh game for three years straight, including losing the last two on the road in Dallas, that 13 percent margin of home ice advantage could be the difference between lords and losers.

After an alarming four-game stretch without a win, the Avs have turned things around and strung up five straight games without a loss. Team captain Joe Sakic, fresh from a three-assist, one-goal performance Sunday, couldn't emphasize enough the significance of the turnaround, dismissing the notion that the value of the victories might be diminished because the recent wins came against lesser teams. "It's huge. You have to win the games that you know you should win," Sakic pointed out. "The last couple years we had problems with that. We talked about that at the beginning of this year -- losing, wasting points on teams that you should beat. That's really what cost us our home ice last year.

"Every team goes through a down time," Sakic continued. "When those things happen, you have to find a way, but it's not always easy. I think that one game in Toronto, coming back the way we did three different times, really gave us confidence. We're using that to our advantage now." That vigorous comeback a week and a half ago -- securing an overtime tie to defiantly salvage a season on the verge of crisis -- has given the Avs a new spark.

"In Toronto, the last half of that game, we really got back in our game and realized the things we needed to do," defenseman Ray Bourque said after Sunday's victory over Atlanta. "We've really shut down teams the last three or four games, not giving them all that much, playing good defense. By doing that it seems like offensively things are happening for us."

What normally would have been a subdued Sunday skate with rookie backup goalie David Aebischer, facing the second-year expansion Atlanta team turned into a high-intensity battle with plenty of penalties and a fight or two for good measure. The Avs are serious about playing for home ice, and the Thrashers, who are supposed to lay down and play dead, having already surpassed last year's 14-win total with over a month still left in the season, played as though the game mattered.

The biggest change for the Avs has been the addition of All-Star defenseman Rob Blake, acquired a week ago from the Los Angeles Kings. Blake is a tireless defenseman in the tradition of Bourque, accustomed to racking up lots of minutes on the ice, keeping the pressure off his own goalie, and burying the puck in the nets of his foes on a regular basis.

The league-leading defensive scorer sunk his first puck for the Avalanche Sunday in his second game for the team, a one-timer hit with so much force that, even though Thrashers goalie Damian Rhodes initially stopped the puck, it still had enough oomph to gently slide after the impact, drifting over the red line like a well-played disc on a sawdusty tabletop shuffleboard.

"It's good to get that out of the way," Blake told reporters after the game. "You want to do something and contribute to the team. You don't want to let anything build up."

Blake admitted to feeling even better in his second game after a case of first-game butterflies on Friday. "You have so many thoughts going through your head that first game. It's really hard to concentrate all the way through. You come in today and you feel a lot more at home."

"It's amazing the strides you make with feeling out the teammates, getting used to some guys," Blake continued. "It'll be nice to have a whole week of practice here and then we go down the stretch." The Avs have a five-day break between last Sunday's game and this Saturday's home game against Buffalo, during which time they'll sharpen the teamwork with their new and improved lineup as they prepare for the sprint to the finish line and the quest for perfect playoff seeding.

Although the power-play line up is a potent collection of All-Stars, including Sakic, Bourque, Blake, Peter Forsberg, and Patrick Roy in the goal, the new combination came up empty-handed in seven chances Sunday.

"That'll happen every once in a while," Blake conceded. "We want to make sure that power play gets clicking. You're going to need it down the stretch; you're going to need it in the playoffs. But with the talent out there, give us a few practices, a few more games here, and that'll be going."

For now, Blake is happily adjusting to playing on a team that is favored to win every time it laces its skates, a dramatic change from his sojourn with the Kings, a middle-of-the-pack team at best.

"It's a different mindset," he said, wonder shining from his eyes. "You come into the games and you expect to win. You play with that aura when you step on the ice and you carry it through."

Bourque has grown accustomed to that feeling, having joined the Avs for last year's stretch run, and he anticipates even greater familiarity with winning as the season's end nears. "I think whenever you acquire a guy like Rob Blake he's going to make everybody around him better," Bourque said Sunday. "These [recent games] are games we should win, but coming up in March we got a lot of good teams, a lot of big games."

The team goes into this short break on their best pace ever, ahead of their '96-'97 season and poised to rewrite the record books. There isn't a team in their division who is in a league with the Avs, but their sights are on conference rivals St. Louis and the red-hot Red Wings in a battle royale for home ice come April.

"When we're playing the way we are, it's tough not to kind of shake your head sometimes and just look at what we have and really get excited on the bench with what you're seeing and the potential of this club," Bourque concluded. "This team can be so explosive. It's a lot of fun to watch."

-- owen@csindy.com

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