Look Out!

Losing two superstars would trigger an Avalanche slide.

Make the odds eight to five that the only decent team playing at the Pepsi Center next season will be armed with those funny sticks with the nets on the end.

In its first season, the Colorado Mammoth proved to be a tough-as-nails contender in the indoor lacrosse wars, and there's every reason to believe Gary Gait and company will kick it up again next year. For the building's other occupants, there are a couple of problems. The hopeless Denver Nuggets haven't had a sniff of post-season play since it snowed on Mount Mutombo, and no high school kid from Ohio -- should he be unfortunate enough to wind up in Nuggets colors -- is about to reverse their sorry fortunes. Meanwhile, rookie owner and CEO John Elway's new, and exceptionally incompetent, arena football team stands at 2-12. The Colorado Crush hasn't even won at home yet, so you probably won't hear much cheering next year for that bunch, either.

That leaves Denver with the one pro team it's been able to count on -- not just for a respectable showing, but for a championship run. The Rockies may crumble and the Broncos may bumble, but local sports fans have for nearly a decade been able to point at the Colorado Avalanche bench, puff out their chests and crow: "See those guys? They have a shot at the Stanley Cup every year."

But now comes the first real crisis of faith for a franchise that won the division championship in each of its eight seasons here, played in six Western Conference finals and took home the Cup in 1996 and 2001. As if by magic, the former Quebec Nordiques brought instant NHL glory to Denver in 1995. Only now has the spell worn off. The immediate cause of disillusionment is something called the Minnesota Wild, a 6-1 series underdog that sent the Avalanche to its doom in the first round of this year's NHL playoffs.

The Avs looked listless while blowing a three-games-to-one lead, and many who follow the game closely say the Avs' rookie coach, Tony Granato, on the job only a few months, was outsmarted on a grand scale by the Wild's Jacques Lemaire. Some also believe it was a major mistake for the Avs to have traded playoff-tough center Chris Drury before the post-season.

That's only the beginning of the worried speculation. As any puckhead can tell you, the Avs' amazing dynasty may be coming to an end because one of the greatest goaltenders in the history of the league has reached his twilight, and because a brilliant player still in his prime is thinking about taking his stick and going home. If Larry Walker and Todd Helton were to suddenly defect from the Rox, it would be no more serious than what may happen on the Pepsi Center ice next year in the absence of Patrick Roy and Peter Forsberg. When Elway and Shannon Sharpe both vanished from the Broncos roster in the wake of a second Super Bowl win, it dealt their team no more stunning a blow than the probable losses of Saint Patrick and Peter the Great will mean to theirs.

Get ready for a tumble, Avalanche fans. After partying hard for eight years, it may soon be hangover time.

To say that Roy has been the heart and soul of the Avs since playing his first game for the team on December 7, 1995, is to understate the case. He holds the NHL records for regular-season and playoff wins, owns four Stanley Cup rings and has put a total of ten Conn Smythe, Vezina and William Jennings trophies behind glass. In nineteen seasons, he's played in ten All-Star games, and his playoff record is peerless. He leads, all-time, in games, minutes and shutouts. Little wonder that Robert Picarello, lead columnist for the NHL's Web site, picked Roy as the goalie on his six-player, best-of-all-time team. Roy's teammates in this fantasy endeavor? Wayne Gretzky at center, Doug Harvey and Bobby Orr on defense, Bobby Hull and Gordie Howe on the wings.

For eight years in Denver, Roy stopped more rubber than the wall at the Indy 500, leading the Avs to an NHL-record sixteen playoff-series wins. But he will turn 38 on October 5, and the wear and tear -- especially on his painfully injured hips -- has become ever more evident. Last season, Roy was humiliated in a 7-0 drubbing by the hated Detroit Red Wings in game seven of the Western Conference playoff, and this year's early exit at the hands of the Wild may have been the final blow. Roy's Littleton home is for sale, and his former Montreal Canadiens coach, Jacques Demers, a close friend, says the goalie will not return next season.

Meanwhile, Avalanche management seems oddly unprepared for the inevitable: Second-string goalie David Aebischer and minor-league prospect Phil Sauve (who happens to be the son of Roy's agent) are the only bullets in the gun, and if Roy does retire, the team will likely have to hire a free agent to stop the gap.

L'Affaire Roy stirs up uncertainty in the bloodied Avalanche psyche, but an even scarier notion has arisen: Eligible to become a restricted free agent on July 1, Forsberg may return to Sweden to play for MoDo of the Swedish Elite League. Not only is the team located in his home town of Örnsköldsvik, but it's coached by Forsberg's father, Kent. If anything, his loss would be even more detrimental than Roy's. One of the best playmakers in the game, he led the NHL in scoring this year with 106 points, and he is again a finalist for the league's Pearson Award -- given by players' ballot to the outstanding player of the year.

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