They resembled more of a snow drift than an Avalanche this year. A team many had considered the odds on favorite to win the Stanley Cup instead has bowed out in six games to a younger, less well known, but decidedly harder working squad from San Jose. In Denver where success is considered a right not a privilege this year must surely go down as one of the most disappointing seasons since the team re located from Quebec City.
San Jose who had managed to let the Avs back into this series, or more to the point let Joe Sakic back into the series, finally found a way to put away their long time nemesis. Having lost out in the playoffs over the years to Colorado, the Sharks were determined not to suffer the same fate in 2004.
Three quick goals in the second period and some excellent goaltending from Evgani Nabokov made sure that the Sharks qualified for their first divisional final in the teams thirteen year history. Vincent Damphouse, Marcel Groc and Jonathan Cheechoo put the puck in the net in an eleven minute spread, taking a lead that they would never relinquish on their way to a spot in the third round of the playoffs.
With a three goal lead the Sharks could take advantage of a more wide open Avalanche attack, able to counter the play by taking the puck back deep into the Colorado end. The Avs tried to make their own breaks, but some solid defense in the Shark end, combined with Nabakov’s goaltending denied Colorado the chance to see if their star studded lineup would be able to right its ship in time for the Finals.
This was a team full of mercenaries, Kariya, Selanne, brought in to add even more offence to a team already deep in score making potential. The Avs never really could get on an extended streak this year, showing flashes of the old Av magic a times, but more times than naught they struggled on the ice, incapable of scoring, unwilling to pay the price in the corners and along the boards to move things forward.
Paul Kariya returned to action for this game six, hoping to work himself back into shape for a game seven showdown if it could have been accomplished Tuesday. For Kariya it was a year that just didn’t work out as he had hoped when he made Pierre Lacroix’s day with his 2 for 1 offer of joining the Avs with Teemu Selanne by his side. Kariya spent a fair amount of the year on the injury list, hitting his stride only to be sideswiped by injury as the season came to an end. Selanne never seemed to get untracked in Denver, the dream of he and Kariya dominating the West never seemed to get even close, this was a confusing team to watch this year, you would never be sure which one was in the rink from game to game.
What kind of changes will happen in Denver Tony Granato struggled this year as he seemed to have problems convincing his veteran squad to follow his instructions. Too many times in the regular season and the playoffs he found himself being schooled by the opposite coach. His position may be the first one examined as the post season accounting begins. The Avalanche Goaltending showed occasional glimpses of stability, only to have questions arise at key times. The defence battered, bruised and hospitalized struggled through the stretch and in the playoffs; help is needed to give respite to the overworked blue liners. Then there is the offence, with the exception of Joe Sakic who tried to will this team back onto the winning side of the ledger there were disappointing results.
Peter Forsberg found himself the subject of much attention, Kariya injured and unable to get into a groove and Teemu Selanne had possibly his worst year in his career, all factors that combined to make this a most uncomfortable season for Pierre Lacroix. The Avs GM is rather used to just enjoying his team roll over the opposition, this year they frequently found themselves on the wrong end of a score. Some kind of changes are going to be required to return this team to the higher spots in the conference, the work will begin within days. The key is the status of Peter Fosrberg, forever weary of being battered and hammered he is giving some thought to finishing his carreer in the more peaceful rinks of Sweden, the Avs will have to wait and hope that he wants to suit up in the NHL next year.
For the Sharks the next round should be a wild ride. Facing their former coach and goaltender in Sutter and Kirprusoff, the Sharks will have their hands full with an energized Calgary team. Both teams feature fast skating and heavy hitting and match up equal in many categories. While they may have been unlikely picks at the start of the season to be contending for the Stanley Cup, they’re there now and should make for some memorable games to come. With the Leafs bowing out Tuesday night, Canada is left with only the Flames to defend the honor of the birthplace of hockey. The work ethic of the Sutter coached team is a pretty good place to park your vote as we head into round three.