Drop the gloves during the playoffs with SI.com's writers in the NHL Cup Blog, a daily journal of hockey commentary, on-site reporting and reader-driven discussions.
4:42 PM ET, 5/12/06
Joys of Cup travel
Posted by Michael Farber
The joys of Stanley Cup travel, Part 1:
My United Airlines flight from Denver to Orange County -- I am working on a Mighty Ducks story for SI -- has been delayed because of a fire that broke out in the cockpit after it landed at DIA from New York. Five fire engines rushed to the tarmac, but apparently things have been repaired and we are about the board. Tennis star Lindsay Davenport, who was working the Anaheim dressing room in a Mighty Ducks cap after the sweep Thursday night, is also getting on this plane. Makes you think. Anything happens to this flight, you go down as an "other."
On Saturday, when he puts on his New Jersey Devils sweater for the 706th time, will it be the last time for Patrik Elias? A Devil since he was drafted 51st overall in 1994, the 30-year-old left wing will be free to move on this summer after signing a one-year deal last August.
Following a recent practice, Elias, who will be an unrestricted free agent, did not sound like a player who was going to do all he could to return to the only NHL organization he has known. While he acknowledged the success he has enjoyed during his time in New Jersey, he also said, without elaborating, "On the other hand, there are things that can be an issue."
Whatever those "things" are, the new salary cap structure may prevent an overwhelming offer from another team. However, Devils fans should be reminded that Scott Niedermayer took less dough to team up with his younger brother in Anaheim. (Can you imagine the reaction among Devils fans should Elias go across the Hudson River to join fellow Czech Jaromir Jagr?)
Even if the Devils are swept out of their second-round series against the Carolina Hurricanes, there is no doubting that Elias' stock has surged. After overcoming a bout with hepatitis-A that he contracted in Russia during the lockout, wiping out the first half of this season, the two-time Stanley Cup winner not only returned to the ice, but sparked the Devils' second-half resurgence under Lou Lamoriello.
Elias made his season debut on January 3 against the Panthers and recorded at least one point in nine of his first 10 games. Though fatigued at times, it soon became clear that he was fully recovered from his illness. Derailed for a few games in March with bruised ribs, Elias went 16-29-45 in 38 games and was the club's fifth-leading scorer. Not coincidentally, the Devils were an eye-opening 30-9-4 after he returned to the fold, setting an NHL record for overcoming the largest deficit (19 points) to win a division title.
A huge playoff against the Rangers served to heighten his stock even more. During the four-game sweep of their division rival, which increased New Jersey's winning streak to 15 games, Elias tied the team mark for points in a series (11). Though the Devils are in a huge hole against the 'Canes, Elias has added three more points and, heading into Friday's action, led all playoff scorers with 14 points -- in only seven games.
Whether the points he has been piling up are his last in the Meadowlands, and whatever intrigue is in Elias and the Devils keeping the series alive, it all certainly pales in comparison to an off-season with No. 26 on the market.
The last of the NHL's circus teams -- or at least the husk of one -- bowed out meekly on Thursday night, the spent Colorado Avalanche swept, 4-1, by the bigger, faster and significantly cheaper Mighty Ducks of Anaheim. After 10 years in Denver and almost 500 consecutive sellouts, there was a tired air to this Colorado team, like a dowager who has been getting by on rouge and her memories. Colorado won three Stanley Cups in its decade, waged pitched battles against the Detroit Red Wings and showcased stars like Joe Sakic, Peter Forsberg, Patrick Roy and, for a time, Raymond Bourque. Detroit might have been Hockeytown, but this was the epicenter of hockey in the United States. The Avalanche were the greatest show on ice since coming west from Quebec City in 1995-96, but in the new salary-capped NHL, the playing field shifted as quickly as a paradigm.
In this anything-can-happen NHL world -- how does that Carolina-San Jose matchup grab you? Anaheim vs. Buffalo, anyone? Edmonton against anybody? -- the last playoff team with even a hint of national appeal, the Avs, is just a mid-level club now. It beat Dallas, which was undermined by shoddy goaltending, but it never appeared to have the jam to make a long playoff run. In past years, general manager Pierre Lacroix always seemed to be playing with a stacked deck, win or lose, but this time he was unable to fill holes at the trading deadline by taking on salary. Colorado's inherent advantage over the Mighty Ducks of the NHL world vanished. There can be quick turnarounds for teams that allocate resources effectively, but every mistake Lacroix makes -- taking on goalie Jose Theodore for two more years, perhaps -- is going to be magnified. Mighty Ducks defenseman Sean O'Donnell told me after the game that if any GM can rebuild the franchise, it is the hyper-aggressive Lacroix, but truly the task seems mile-high.
If Lacroix needed reminders of the Avalanche's shortcomings in a year when salary considerations hastened the exits of Forsberg and defenseman Adam Foote, they occurred in Game 3 when defenseman Patrice Brisebois, the anti-Foote, recklessly threw a pass into the middle of the offensive zone that led top Anaheim's winning goal in overtime and again in Game 4 when Pierre Turgeon, the nominal replacement for Forsberg, was a healthy scratch.
Colorado was neither physical enough nor quick enough to compete with Anaheim, which changed the culture of its team radically during the season when new general manager Brian Burke managed to unload Sergei Fedorov and also move veterans Petr Sykora and Sandis Ozolinsh. Nor were the Avalanche core players, beyond Sakic, impressive. After several years of waiting for a breakthrough into players of the first order, neither Alex Tanguay nor Milan Hejduk seem to have an extra gear. With defenseman Rob Blake an unrestricted free agent, Colorado might be losing its defensive linchpin. This could get ugly before it gets pretty again.
Well, it was great fun while it lasted, but a series didn't end Thursday night. An era did. Like those flashlights they peddle at the circus, all things burn out eventually.