A low point for hockey in the Mile High City

Originally published in Eishockey News in 2007

By Lucas Aykroyd

The Colorado Avalanche franchise has never missed the playoffs since relocating from Quebec City to Denver in 1995, but it looks like that streak will end in 2007.

Colorado allowed a whopping 35 goals in its first eight games in February, and found itself battling with Edmonton for ninth place in the Western Conference, while other Northwest Division rivals like Calgary, Vancouver, and Minnesota solidified their playoff hopes. After a typically sloppy 5-4 loss to the Vancouver Canucks on February 18 at GM Place, Avalanche players expressed their frustration with the club’s inability to play better hockey in its own end.

“We’ve just got to find a way to put teams away and start getting some points, because time is ticking,” said captain Joe Sakic. “Obviously, we have to do a better job defensively and not give up so many quality scoring chances.”

“It seems like every little mistake ends up in the back of our net right now,” added Ian Laperriere.

“We’re just not getting the bounces, and we’re making mistakes at key times in games,” said Brett MacLean. “We’ve put ourselves in a position where we have to get two points out of each game. But I think our effort and attitude is definitely where it has to be. If we’d put forth this kind of effort in the first half of the season, we wouldn’t be in this situation.”

The overall picture, though, is a little more complicated. Colorado’s fall from grace has been in the making since the end of the 2005 NHL lockout. Arguably no other club was hurt more by the league’s adoption of a salary cap, which obliged then-GM Pierre Lacroix to let highly paid veteran stars like Peter Forsberg, Rob Blake, and Adam Foote walk away as free agents. Some of Colorado’s post-lockout signings have also proved ill-advised, like injured French-Canadian veterans Patrice Brisebois and Pierre Turgeon.

Additionally, the team’s goaltending has never been the same since Hall-of-Famer Patrick Roy retired in 2003, even though David Aebischer had an impressive regular season run the following season. 2002 Vezina and Hart winner Jose Theodore is now in his first full season with Colorado since being acquired from Montreal for Aebischer last year, and he’s been a bust, posting a save percentage below .900 and losing his starting job to 24-year-old Slovak Olympian Peter Budaj.

In front of the masked men, defensemen like Ken Klee and NHL ironman Karlis Skrastins provide fairly reliable physicality, and Brett Clark and John-Michael Liles have bolstered the offense from the blueline in Blake’s absence, as both have scored more than 30 points this season. But obviously no one stands out like Blake, Foote, and Ray Bourque did during Colorado’s last Cup championship in 2001. This group has to take responsibility for the Avalanche’s inept penalty-killing, which surrenders a goal on approximately 20 percent of opposition man advantages.

There’s some good news up front. Offensively gifted rookies like Wojtek Wolski and Paul Stastny would be leading candidates to win the Calder Trophy if Pittsburgh’s Evgeni Malkin hadn’t already won that race. Thanks in part to these young talents, Colorado has one of the league’s best power plays (although it’s far stronger at home than on the road), and that creates hope for the future when snipers like Sakic and Milan Hejduk either see their production dry up or simply retire.

But what can the Avalanche do about their seemingly hopeless plight now? Individual achievements are nice, like Sakic’s 600th career goal on February 15, but those won’t mean much if the only hockey games that team members are playing in late April are at the 2007 IIHF World Championship in Russia.

“I think we just have to take it game by game,” said Tyler Arnason. “I know that’s a cliché, but we have to put a string of wins together. Start with one win, and then put four or five together.”

At least that kind of talk gives Avalanche fans something nice to dream about at night.

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