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In a hole

Avs' defense hopes to step up for Game 4

Posted: Tuesday May 07, 2002 9:39 PM

SAN JOSE, Calif. (AP) -- Without a sturdy defense in front of him, even Patrick Roy looks ordinary -- and another Stanley Cup victory seems far from the Colorado Avalanche's reach.

The defending champions are in trouble again in their tumultuous playoff campaign, down 2-1 to the San Jose Sharks in the Western Conference semifinals.

Colorado faces Game 4 at the Shark Tank on Wednesday night with big questions about its ability to help Roy, the winningest goalie in hockey history.

The Avalanche know they must get better results from the thin corps of defensemen whose struggles have been largely responsible for San Jose's 14 goals in the series' first three games.

Even Colorado's star blueliners -- Rob Blake, Adam Foote and Darius Kasparaitis -- have been suspect in their end as San Jose's aggressive forechecking and hard work in the corners have led to 14 goals in three games. That's the most allowed in any three-game stretch by the Avalanche all season.

"We were very unlucky on all their goals," Roy said. "But defensively, we could have done things better. We'll have to adjust."

Some Colorado players complained about the officiating in Game 3, particularly the five straight penalties against the Avalanche in the third period, leading to two power-play goals for the Sharks.

But the officials weren't responsible for the 39 shots by the Sharks, who are showing an offensive ferocity they lacked for weeks at a time during the regular season.

Unless the Avalanche tighten up, their sixth trip to the conference finals in seven seasons could be in jeopardy. And San Jose might have the breakthrough into the NHL's elite teams it's been seeking through six consecutive seasons of improvement.

Led by red-hot Patrick Marleau, Teemu Selanne and their always-dangerous third line, the Sharks already have more goals than they managed in a five-game victory over Phoenix in the first round.

In all, 29 goals have been scored in the series; entering Tuesday night's games, no more than 15 goals had been scored in any other conference semifinal.

"I don't think this is normal Sharks hockey, and I don't think it's normal for Colorado, either," said Selanne, who has three goals in three games against the Avalanche.

"The tight schedule in this series is going to be good for us. They're really only playing with four defensemen, so they're going to get worn out. I think we have more depth than they do, so that's good for us."

Roy had the best regular season of his career -- one in which he skipped the Olympics to remain well-rested for the postseason. He was mostly sharp in the first round, posting a shutout in Game 7 of the Avalanche's victory over Los Angeles.

But after allowing 13 goals in three games against the Sharks, whose final goal on Monday night was an empty-netter, Roy isn't looking invincible.

Of course, San Jose goalie Evgeni Nabokov is still smarting from being pulled late in Colorado's 8-2 victory in Game 2.

"It's tough to give up that many goals, but we're winning hockey games, so let's not worry about it," Nabokov said. "Both teams have lots of skilled players, so there will be a lot of goals sometimes."

It's hardly the type of series expected from two of the NHL's top defensive teams backed by two of the best goalies, but closer examination shows why the meeting has turned into a shootout.

Despite coach Darryl Sutter's reputation for preaching defense-first hockey, the Sharks were the NHL's most quietly prolific offensive team, finishing fourth overall with 248 goals in the regular season.

"It doesn't get brought up that we're a high-scoring team," Sutter said. "And when the [Avalanche] have their full lineup, they're pretty dynamic. ... It's great hockey for the league, and it's great for the fans and the media, and it's hard on the coaches."

It's also no wonder the series features the NHL's top two playoff scorers. Peter Forsberg, skating on fresh legs after sitting out the entire regular season, has 13 points in nine games, while Marleau might be the hottest player in hockey, with 10 points -- one in each of the Sharks' eight games -- and a league-best six goals.

Said Colorado captain Joe Sakic: "These games are crowd-pleasers. Not so much to us, but the crowd loves them."

 
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