McNichols on Ice

What the puck. When it was over, Sylvain Lefebvre could finally replace his lucky shoelaces. The TV producers up in the booth could take a break from the special chocolate-cake ritual they've been into for a month. Sandis Ozolinsh could get through a pre-game meditation without twelve or fourteen teammates stopping by to rub his lucky head. Patrick Roy could think about being a mere fortress again, instead of a god with 400 career wins under his pads.

The Colorado Avalanche's amazing twelve-game winning streak, including four straight on the road, slipped and fell on home ice last week against the lowly Calgary Flames, and it's probably a good thing. As the fellows who work in the next building could tell the Avs, winning, say, thirteen games in a row can be a huge psychological burden. Once it's lifted, you can put yourself back in gear and take care of business. Or try to: Since returning home in triumph, the Avs have lost to the Flames, gone down 4-1 to the Phoenix Coyotes and scratched out a 4-4 tie against Philadelphia.

Not to worry. Colorado's 1996 Stanley Cup champions are clearly back on their game, authentic contenders once more, a team no one wants to face come the playoffs. That awful start, during which they chalked up just one win in their first seven games and brought the obituary writers out in droves, is a dim memory now that they have vaulted to the top of their division with a 29-21-5 record. Even spiky general manager Pierre Lacroix, once thought to be the destroyer of a potential dynasty, is suddenly walking the halls of McNichols Sports Arena with a smile on his face and a halo around his head.

And that guy in the grimy overalls, sweeping up the spilled stardust in Lacroix's wake? Nobody knows his name. But he's probably a forward for the Denver Nuggets.

Let us count the ways that Charlie Lyons's two playthings continue to grow apart:

One: In early February, the Colorado Avalanche went to Boston, Buffalo, Detroit and Dallas and won all four games by a combined score of 14-6; in early February, the Denver Nuggets presumably introduced themselves to each other at a team mixer and promptly lost the first four games of the season by an average of twelve points. For the third time in the last four years, the club started 0-3.

Two: A glance at NHL statistics shows that Avalanche stars Peter Forsberg and Joe Sakic rank fifth and ninth, respectively, in league scoring and that well-chosen rookies Chris Drury and Milan Hejduk rank second and sixth among their young NHL classmates; a glance at the NBA statistics shows that, previous to their win over the Dallas Mavericks, the Nuggets had held a lead for exactly 34 seconds in this truncated season and had so far surrendered a league-high 107 points per game. After Saturday night's 105-92 road loss to the SuperSonics, the Nugs had to look themselves in the mirror and realize they'd won just one of their last 21 regular-season games in Seattle.

Three: The Avs play on ice; the Nuggets still stink on ice. After blowing a 19-point lead to Phoenix Monday night, the local hoopsters were a sorry 1-6, with no relief in sight. Just five players from last year's gruesome 11-71 team remain on the roster, but the 1999 squad--"led" by homeboy Chauncey Billups, reluctant point guard Nick Van Exel and prodigal son Antonio McDyess--haven't exactly been burning the arenas down. It's unlikely that any future collection of Nuggets could be as godawful as the bumblers GM Allan Bristow and coach Bill Hanzlik threw together last season, but the new guys aren't about to slip into the playoff picture anytime soon.

New general manager Dan Issel may be a local legend and the hardest-working man in basketball, but lifting his troops out of the doldrums will be like trying to wake up a graveyard: This franchise is so used to losing that it's benumbed. When, for example, the Nugs fell at home February 10 to the Los Angeles Lakers, it was their ninth straight loss to Shaquille O'Neal and company, dating back almost three years.

"I don't know what I'm doing here," fan Jeffrey Wilder said as the Lakers game slipped away at the end of the first half. "This is where we all came in, isn't it? Between last year's team and the lockout, these guys have an awful lot to prove. At least to me. But it's my own fault for being here. I could be home baking cookies or something."

Rookie Nuggets coach Mike D'Antoni could be in Milan sauteeing veal cutlets. Before coming to Denver, Issel's choice as head coach won five championships in the Italian Professional Basketball League and was twice named coach of the year. But there are no Karl Malones or Scottie Pippins playing in the Italian league, and in the Italian league, slender 6-11 rookie centers from Kansas have a chance of prevailing in the paint. In the NBA they probably don't, and the burden first-round draft pick Raef LaFrentz bears this winter and spring will be huge. For the Nuggets' rookie coach and their rookie center, fifty ballgames could be an eternity.

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