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End of the line

Avalanche fall short in wild push for Stanley Cup

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Posted: Saturday June 05, 1999 08:20 PM

  Rookie coach Bob Hartley led Colorado to the second-best record in the Western Conference. Kellie Landis/Allsport

DENVER (CNN/SI) -- The Colorado Avalanche were unpredictable to the end. They lost when they were expected to win and won when most people had written them off.

Colorado's roller-coaster season ended Friday night with a 4-1 loss to the Dallas Stars in Game 7 of the Western Conference finals.

Watching the Avalanche struggle to control the puck made it hard to believe they had taken control of the series with a 7-5 road win over the top-seeded Stars just five days earlier.

They also bore little resemblance to the team that erased a 2-0 series deficit to the defending champion Detroit Red Wings in the conference semifinals. Those Avs had been written off before implausibly rallying to win four straight.

"Was the season a success? No. We didn't win the Stanley Cup," captain Joe Sakic said. "That was our goal. We just came up a little bit short."

It was hard to gauge the Avalanche from the very beginning.

Playing under rookie coach Bob Hartley, Colorado went winless for the season's first two weeks but won nine of its last 12 games to finish with the second-best record in the Western Conference.

Their success earned the Avs home-ice advantage through the first two rounds of the playoffs, but that proved useless for a team that finished the season with a 10-game home unbeaten streak.

Colorado lost six of nine postseason home games -- the biggest loss coming in Game 6 of the conference finals. The Avalanche had a chance to eliminate Dallas but lost 4-1 to send the series back to Texas.

"The difference was we couldn't win our games at home," Sakic said. "It finally bit us. To win just three home games all playoffs, that's embarrassing. That just shouldn't happen."

The Game 6 loss will stand as the last NHL game at 24-year-old McNichols Arena. It also will haunt goaltender Patrick Roy as he tries to forget how Colorado stumbled in its bid for a second championship in four years.

"To me, Game 7 doesn't hurt as much as Game 6," Roy said. "We were in our building. If there's something I will remember all my life when I get older, it's probably going to be Game 6."

Barring any surprise offseason moves, the Avalanche will have virtually the same cast of skaters when they open the $160 million Pepsi Center in the fall.

The biggest question is whether Colorado can re-sign Theo Fleury after acquiring him in a February trade with Calgary.

Although Fleury can become an unrestricted free agent on July 1, Avalanche general manager Pierre Lacroix has been noncommittal throughout the playoffs. Fleury scored 10 goals and had 14 assists in 15 games with Colorado in the regular season, but was held to three assists in the Dallas series.

Fleury, who made $2.4 million this season, is expected to receive about $6 million per year on the free-agent market.

"I don't even want to think about it right now," he said. "I've made it clear that Colorado is the place I would definitely like to play at the start of next season. It's fun to play with guys who want to win and who care about winning and an organization that cares about winning."

Fleury and forward Valeri Kamensky are the only Avalanche players who will become unrestricted free agents. In the past year, Colorado has signed all-stars Peter Forsberg, Sandis Ozolinsh and Roy to contract extensions.

Several others, including defenseman Adam Foote and forward Shjon Podein, were signed to multiyear contracts before and during the season, and Sakic has one year remaining on his three-year, $21 million deal.

With the NHL struggling to find ways to reward fast-skating teams such as Colorado, critics say the Avalanche should pattern themselves after Dallas, which plays a more conservative, defense-first style.

It probably won't happen. In addition to their talented veterans Sakic, Forsberg and Adam Deadmarsh, the Avs found additional scoring power from rookies Chris Drury and Milan Hejduk.

If Fleury returns, the offense figures to be potent again. Just don't try to make any predictions.

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The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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