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Paging Lord Stanley

Kariya, Selanne and Sakic -- oh, my!

If Patrick Roy isn't muttering into his onion soup about now up in chilly Quebec, he probably should be. After that ignominious early exit from the playoffs last spring -- the Minnesota Wild? the what? -- the future suddenly looked bleak for the Colorado Avalanche. Not only was Roy, the greatest goaltender in the history of the NHL, contemplating retirement, but his old ami Peter Forsberg was thinking seriously about a permanent trip home to Sweden, there to play the gentler brand of finesse hockey he favors. Coached by his father, no less.

Whither the Avs? Absent their two bulwark stars, they suddenly looked like a second-division club in the making, bereft of Stanley Cup dreams, a failed dynasty reduced to spare parts -- Joe Sakic and Milan Hejduk nothwithstanding.

So Saint Patrick must be muttering. Retire he did -- they'll hang his fabled number 33 jersey up at Pepsi Center on October 28 -- just five weeks before two of the game's most powerful scoring threats shocked the league by engineering a low-budget, we're-only-in-it-for-the-glory reunion right here in Denver. For a team that seemed thoroughly down in the mouth in June -- the Minnesota Wild knocked us out of the Cup? -- emotions suddenly shot sky-high in early July. First, Forsberg decided to stick around another year -- for a cool $11 million. Then the impossible happened. Having free agents (and devoted former teammates) Teemu Selanne and Paul Kariya suddenly fall into Avalanche general manager Pierre Lacroix's lap -- and for the price of two good seats, a couple of hot dogs and a pair of cold Buds, to boot -- was a little like Barry Bonds and Sammy Sosa suddenly getting it into their heads to chuck everything and pump up their numbers playing for, say, the Colorado Rockies.

So Patrick Roy must be having second thoughts. For one year, at least, the Avalanche will have two of the most fearsome scoring lines in the history of hockey, and even if the club's questionable corps of defensemen and its two largely untested goaltenders give up three or four goals a game this year, those scoring machines at center ice will be just as likely to tally five or six every night. Talk about an embarrassment of riches. In last week's intrasquad Burgundy and White game at the University of Denver's Magness Arena, a pound of beluga caviar and a magnum of Dom Perignon wouldn't have looked any better on ice than the new, lightning-fast Sakic-Selanne-Kariya line (four goals, ten points) and the "old" Forsberg-Hejduk-Alex Tanguay line (three points). Their post-game grins were wide. After just a week of practice, the newcomers looked as comfortable in triple tandem as if they'd been playing pond hockey together up in Moose Jaw since they were six years old.

Make no mistake: Opposing goalies will be eating a lot of black rubber this year. Too bad Roy won't be around to watch it from the other end of the rink -- and to make one last run at a third Stanley Cup in an Avalanche sweater.

As it happens, this will be a do-or-die year for the entire team. Lacroix's gift-wrapped stars, Selanne and Kariya, are probably here for just one hell-bent, win-at-any-cost season before they vanish into other rosters for something like their real market value -- and before the NHL itself risks the wrath of its fans with a work stoppage that is likely to begin September 15, 2004, when hockey's collective bargaining agreement expires. Talk about fatalism. If the Avs don't grab their third Cup in 2003-04, they could wait a very long time for another shot. Their new rent-a-stars could both be gone, and Forsberg's future remains cloudy -- especially if labor strife drives him back to Sweden. If there is no lockout, this year's loaded-up Avalanche team would, by next fall, look like the 1998 Florida Marlins, an upstart World Series champion whose sated owner suddenly auctioned off his talent and let the club slip back into mediocrity.

So sport that big red "A" while it's still in fashion, all you puckheads. This will be one wild Avalanche season, careering down the mountain without a thought of the future or a glimmer of consequence. The ideal semi-climax, of course, would pit the Avs against their old friends from Detroit before they move on to the finals against whatever the East can offer.

At the July 3 press conference where he first pulled on a burgundy Avalanche sweater, the straight-shooting Kariya made no attempt to disguise his goals: "Teemu and I are absolutely thrilled, and we're so excited about this chance to play in Colorado," the winger said. "We think we've got a terrific opportunity to win the Stanley Cup, and that's why we came here."

Pierre Lacroix was beaming that day. In the frenzied, not so player-friendly midst of the Burgundy and White game, so was Avs coach Tony Granato. He had the look of a guy with an armload of shotguns scanning a skyful of Mighty Ducks.

The puck pundits and rest of the league are not so sure.

ESPN's pre-season NHL power rankings have the Avalanche at number nine -- just behind Philadelphia, St. Louis and Toronto, because goalies David Aebischer and Philippe Sauve have never endured the season-long grind. The obvious solution? Signing an available veteran from another team. Don't be surprised if it's Nikolai Khabibulin of Tampa Bay. The icemen at Sports Illustrated think even less of the Avs, ranking them tenth behind obvious contenders like defending champion New Jersey and Dallas, Detroit and Philadelphia, but also three slots below Tampa Bay, a fair-at-best team whose key players all had career years last season. The consensus picks in those two expert polls are New Jersey and the Ottawa Senators in the East, while Dallas and Vancouver average best in the west. Here's an oddity: ESPN ranks the Red Wings number one overall, but SI rates them a lukewarm ninth.

Aside from green goaltending, the Avalanche's main problem this year could be penalty-killing, and Granato might have to use one of his star centers -- Sakic or Forsberg -- to anchor the stop unit, which wouldn't be too helpful in the much-anticipated high-scoring department.

Whatever happens, this is bound to be a tumultuous, maybe desperate, year for a team with a clear shot at the title and, if we don't miss our guess, a long night of futility in the aftermath. That was not lost, at last week's scrimmage, on one hard-core Avs season-ticket holder. Said Phil McGonagle, dressed in his number 33 sweater: "I can't wait. With those six great shooters out there on the ice, it's gonna be like a race car going all out with no brakes. They might win the race. They might crash and burn. But it's gonna be a helluva ride."

How much better with Saint Patrick between the pipes?


For Broncos fans who watched Monday night's 31-10 demolition of the Oakland Raiders on the boob tube, the happiest moment was probably not quarterback Jake Plummer's record-setting forty-yard run (shades of St. John Elway), nor Shannon Sharpe's touchdown catch, nor even the sight of panting old Bill Romanowski standing helpless as Plummer shot around him into the end zone on a naked bootleg.

No, the highlight of the highlight reel had to be ABC's brief cutaway, when the score was 21-zip at the end of the first quarter, to the glowering visage of Raiders owner Al Davis -- an unhappy man, to say the least. Caught in his third-level lair by a sudden flood of TV lights, the sour villain every Denverite loves to hate (not least his former employee Mike Shanahan) shot a dark glance up at his own twisted face on the monitor, then loosed a stream of profanities it took no lip-reader to decode. Davis is famous for such outbursts -- Martin Lawrence might be shocked by the owner's gift for Anglo-Saxon epithet -- and the orange-and-blue-clad throngs perched on their living-room couches or raving into their Coors in Denver's sports bars had to savor the spectacle of Davis's fury. They couldn't have been happier, we suspect, if Osama bin Laden had gone in at running back and Al Wilson had knocked him cold in the backfield.

It wouldn't do to get overheated about the Broncos' 3-0 start. The supposed walkover against awful Detroit coming up on Sunday at Invesco contains the usual pitfalls -- overconfidence and distraction -- and is followed, seven days later, by a trip to Kansas City, where a full-throttle red threat awaits. A 5-0 Broncos record, nothing less, would prove the team's authenticity.


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