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Another ascent: after last year’s Western finals collapse, Peter Forsberg and the Avalanche look to scale Mount Stanley again

Another ascent: after last year’s Western finals collapse, Peter Forsberg and the Avalanche look to scale Mount Stanley again – Colorado Avalanche hockey team hopes to play in Stanley Cup again

Adrian Dater

COLORADO AVALANCHE FANS are the trust-fund babies of the NHL.

From the Avs’ “birth” in Denver in 1995, their fans have been spoiled rotten with great teams. Forget about any growing pains, Avs fans got a Stanley Cup right off the hop, after Quebec Nordiques loyalists bid the team adieu following 23 years of dry runs.

In the first seven years of Avalanche tenancy, Coloradoans received two Stanley Cups, six Western finals appearances, and seven division flags.

The Avalanche entered the 2002-03 season with the training camp slogan, “Pursuing History,” which will be made if they win their ninth straight division title. (The Nordiques won their division the franchise’s last season in Quebec.) But to the team and especially its fans, division flags might as well be used as spare bed sheets or rags in the garage.

Anything but a Cup draws thumbsdown from the masses at the Pepsi Center, and that again is the case this season. And why not? With last names such as Roy, Sakic, Forsberg, Blake, and Foote still on the roster, Colorado still must be ranked as a prime heavyweight contender to take back the Cup from the hated Detroit Red Wings, who escaped the Avs’ noose in last year’s Western finals to make off with the silver booty.

The Avs thought they had a date all set up with patsy Carolina in the Stanley Cup Finals, after Peter Forsberg slipped a puck past Dominik Hasek in Game 5 in Detroit, putting the Avs up 3-2 with a chance to embalm the Wings in Denver a couple nights later.

But if the Avs have had a soft underbelly over the years, it has been the tendency to let up in such killer instinct specials. Just as they did in the 1999 Western finals against Dallas, the Avs blew a Game 6 at home, and had nothing left for Game 7.

The enduring images of the Avs’ otherwise admirable season were Patrick Roy’s botched Statue of Liberty save in Game 6, and his being yanked off the ice in a 7-0 humiliation in the Game 7 that will forever be known as the Motown Meltdown.

But Roy and Company say the bad memories have been freshly scrubbed, that there is only optimism for what lies ahead.

“I think we’re all committed to winning again,” says Roy, who set an NHL record for most games as a goalie (972) after his sixth game this season. “When I look back to last year, it’s Game 6 that I remember most, not Game 7. That’s where we lost the series. But I don’t think that series will have any effect on us this season. It’s over, and we’re looking forward to this one.”

Sakic, who needs 17 goals to hit the 500 mark, said he didn’t think about the Motown Meltdown at all over the summer.

“It’s over, you put it behind you,” Sakic says. “This is a new season and I’m excited. We’ve got another good team that has a chance to win. That’s all you can ask.”

While talent remains in every nook and cranny of the Avs’ locker room, it is the full-time return to action of Peter Forsberg that is most responsible for the increased arc in the smiles of Sakic and Roy.

Forsberg nearly upstaged everybody with his playoff performance last spring, which was the only time hockey fans saw him on skates all season. After missing the entire regular season with ankle problems, Forsberg joined Colorado for the postseason and led all NHL scorers with 27 points. If not for a broken pinkie finger in the final two games against Detroit, the Super Swede might have added a third championship ring to his hand.

But other than a chipped front tooth suffered right before training camp in a scrimmage, Forsberg entered his ninth season healthy and happy.

“I feel great, better than I have in a few years,” Forsberg says. “I’m really looking forward to the season. Last year was tough all around for me, but things are better now.”

Despite Detroit’s new keeper of the Cup status, and a major talent infusion in Dallas thanks to Tom Hicks’ wallet, it is the Avalanche many around the league still look at as the favorite in the West this year.

“I still think they’ve got the best goalie in the league in Roy, even though he had the bad seventh game in Detroit,” says one Western Conference scout. “They’ve got some good young forwards coming up again, and Forsberg’s back. They’re still a tough nut to crack.”

Indeed, Colorado’s amazing youth pipeline over the years has again supplied some hot prospects up front, the best probably being 20-year-old winger Radim Vrbata, who scored 18 goals as a rookie. Vrbata is compared favorably to fellow Czech, Milan Hejduk, who remains just a pup at 25 and has fully recovered from the groin injury that rendered him about 80% effective in the playoffs.

Then there is 20-year-old Czech center Vaclav Nedorost, the 13th overall pick in the 2000 draft, who dramatically reduced his body fat over the summer and impressed everybody in camp. Winger prospect Jordan Krestanovich also had a good camp, and looks to be a sure-fire NHLer some day soon.

Add to the mix already proven young forwards Alex Tanguay and Steve Reinprecht, and Colorado should easily outpace the measly 212 goals it scored last season, especially if the new obstruction standards are enforced all year.

“We definitely want to score more goals,” says Sakic, whose 79 points in 82 games was his lowest output in a non-injury-shortened season. “Obviously, with Peter out last year, we had to win a different way. We became a defensive team, and we still were pretty successful. But there’s no question, we’re a better team when we can skate and get the puck moving offensively,” Sakic says.

Heading into camp, the one place Avalanche fans may have had reason to be worried was on defense. Since winning the Cup in 2001, Colorado has weathered the loss of defensemen Ray Bourque, Jon Klemm, and Darius Kasparaitis. Entering this season, the Avs appeared set to suit up castoffs Bryan Muir and Lance Pitlick in the fifth and sixth defensive spots.

In the loaded Western Conference, that didn’t figure to be good enough, especially with Colorado relying on Greg de Vries and Martin Skoula in the third and fourth slots after stalwarts Rob Blake and Adam Foote.

Unlike in the forward department, the Avalanche have a paucity of promising defensive prospects, which meant general manager and deal-maker extraordinaire Pierre Lacroix had to pull another rabbit out of his hat for a top defenseman through a trade.

Over the years, Lacroix has landed blue-line help such as Bourque, Kasparaitis, Blake, and Sandis Ozolinsh. Since there didn’t appear to be a market for comparable, available names this year, Lacroix acted early, dealing forwards Chris Drury and Stephane Yelle to Calgary for blueliner Derek Morris, plus two others. While the Avs hated to part ways with Drury, who always seemed to come up with a big goal in the playoffs, the 24-year-old Morris has much more of an upside than the departed Kasparaitis.

With Morris joining Roy, Blake, and Foote, Colorado now has a formidable cadre to protect its goal. But don’t expect Lacroix, who usually likes to see where his team stands near the trade deadline before making a move, to stand pat if he sees another opportunity to improve his rearguards. Tanguay, coming off a miserable 48-point season and with a relatively cheap contract, is attractive trade bait if someone like Boston’s Kyle McLaren becomes available.

Regardless, all appears set for another fun year of hockey in Denver–Cup or no Cup. This is an organization whose idea of hardship in its first seven years in Denver has been not having home-ice advantage for the Western finals.

“We’ve always had good teams, teams that have pretty much gone right to the wire every year,” Foote says. “It’s made for short summers, but that’s the way we like it. We’re used to it, and we don’t want it to change. We want an even shorter summer this year.”

Six Comebacks to Watch in 2002-03

PETER FORSBERG IS JUST ONE OF MANY NHLers looking to comeback strong after injuries and other factors limited their play last season. Here are some of the players that bear watching.

THEO FLEURY, Chicago

Under the guidance of his former mentor in Calgary, Brian Sutter, the once high-scoring wing looks to turn his career around following a stint in substance-abuse rehab two seasons ago and a series of embarrassing incidents last season.

SLAVA KOZLOV, Atlanta

A mainstay of the Red Wings lineup in the late ’90s, Kozlov was dealt to Buffalo as part of the Dominic Hasek trade and then missed over half the season with an Achilles tendon injury. In Atlanta, he will be looked upon to provide scoring and leadership for the improving Thrashers.

MARIO LEMIEUX, Pittsburgh

Super Mario set his sites on winning Olympic gold last season and thus was limited to just 24 regular-season games. He says he wants to play 70-75 this season, but will his body let him is the question. Never count him out, but with or without him the Pens don’t look like contenders.

ERIC LINDROS, N.Y. Rangers

Showed flashes of his A game last season, but was still tentative as he felt his way back around the league. With a new offensive-minded coach in Bryan Trottier and a goal-scoring linemate in Pavel Bure (if he’s healthy), this could shape up to be a dominate season.

SAKU KOIVU, Montreal

The feel-good story of last season, the Montreal captain was diagnosed with stomach cancer in the preseason and then triumphantly made it back to the ice by the playoffs, giving the surprising Habs the emotional boost they needed to knock of the Bruins in the first round. Now 100% cancer free, he’ll be looked upon to revive the Canadiens stagnant offense.

STEVE RUCCHIN, Anaheim

With Adam Oates coming to town, Rucchin goes to the second line, which means that if he goes down again–he’s played only 54 games over the last two seasons–it won’t be as drastic a loss.

COPYRIGHT 2002 Century Publishing

COPYRIGHT 2002 Gale Group