The clock struck at 1:05 a.m. on Tuesday for Cinderella. A shot from inside the blue line by Colorado Avalanche defenseman Uwe Krupp at 4:31 of the third overtime sneaked past Florida Panthers goalie John Vanbiesbrouck and ended the third-longest game in Stanley Cup finals history, 1-0, and the fairy-tale hopes of Florida, four games to none. Someday the Panthers might live happily ever after, but it is the Avalanche who should live well at the top of the NHL for many years to come. As the Stanley Cup was handed to Joe Sakic, the Colorado captain and playoff MVP, he pumped it over his head in ecstasy. "I never knew what this meant," Sakic said. "This is the greatest moment of my life."
Of course, the Avalanche had already been given a sneak preview back at Denver's McNichols Arena, where Stanley Cups made of aluminum foil had dotted the stands during Games 1 and 2. Like Christmas decorations, those fake Cups should be carefully stored for use next year, and the year after and the year after that. The Avalanche players shudder at being labeled a budding dynasty. O.K., let's just say that playing for the Stanley Cup is going to become an annual event in Colorado, like spring skiing and 39th birthdays. The playoff parity that has developed in the last four seasons could be blown away by the Avalanche, the NHL's next dominant team, a compelling blend of veterans and bright, brassy young talent.
Four of Colorado's core players—22-year-old Peter Forsberg, one of the league's most complete centers; 21-year-old Adam Deadmarsh, soon to be a premier power forward; daring 23-year-old defenseman Sandis Ozolinsh, who plays from crease to crease and often gives both teams an excellent chance to win; and hard-hitting 24-year-old defenseman Adam Foote—are barely old enough to grow decent playoff whiskers. High-scoring center Sakic, a survivor of the Avalanche's dark days as the Quebec Nordiques, is only 26. The Colorado gray-beards are Bluebeard himself, nasty right wing Claude Lemieux, and steady defenseman Krupp, both of whom are 30 but have plenty of mileage left. Even St. Patrick Roy, who drove the rats out of Miami, is just 30. "I was talking to the trainer, and we were wondering how old Ozolinsh was," said Roy, who allowed four goals in the finals. "He's 23. Twenty-three. That's scary. Deadmarsh already is a big-time player at 21. These young guys are just learning how to win. This team could be dangerous."
Even as Colorado has ascended, most of its competition has begun to slide. The profligate Detroit Red Wings have squandered their great talent, the New York Rangers are old enough to get 10% off on prescriptions, and the Pittsburgh Penguins' future rests on the vagaries of Mario Lemieux's desire and health. "The difference between Colorado and its supposed challengers like Detroit and Pittsburgh is that Colorado's skill players are young," says Florida president Bill Torrey, the architect of the New York Islanders teams that won the Cup four times from 1980 to '83. " Colorado's got good size, speed and balance in scoring. The Avalanche explodes, and that's what happens with a good team."
The challenge will be keeping together a team that already has a $20 million payroll in this era of high salaries, increased free agency and short attention spans, but even that task doesn't seem especially daunting. With the proposed Pepsi Center inching closer to a groundbreaking, Colorado figures to have a new home for the 1998-99 season. The increased revenue from the new arena—in ticket sales, luxury-box leases and so on—is expected to generate enough money to keep the nucleus of the Avalanche intact, with a little left over to pay coach Marc Crawford. According to a Colorado source, Avalanche general manager Pierre Lacroix figured any coach could have led a team this skilled to the conference finals. By coaching Colorado to a semifinal victory over the favored Red Wings, however, the 35-year-old Crawford proved that he's an indispensable part of the team. Avalanche president Charlie Lyons said last week that Crawford, who has one year left on a contract that pays him only $160,000 a season, deserves an extension.
Crawford seemed to cope with the pressures of the Stanley Cup finals better than Panthers coach Doug MacLean, who, like Florida's rats-to-riches story, started to unravel even before Game 1. Three minutes before the Panthers were to take the ice at McNichols for the series opener, MacLean engaged in a screaming match via walkie-talkie with NHL senior vice president Brian Burke. Moments earlier the league's supervisor of officials, Bryan Lewis, had ordered Vanbiesbrouck to put white adhesive tape over the knob of his stick in accordance with a rule as widely unenforced as it is arcane. (The color-coordinated Vanbiesbrouck had been using red tape on the stick butt for three years.) Rule No. 3001 B.C., Vanbiesbrouck called it the next day, and newspapers dubbed the incident Knobgate, though at issue was only five inches of tape, not 18 minutes of it.
Backup officials had spotted the offending knob from the stands during warmups, but Panthers executives thought they smelled a Colorado rat. They intimated that the Avalanche had somehow orchestrated the tape crackdown in an effort to upset Vanbiesbrouck, whose game-day concentration makes him look like a Stepford husband. (Once when Florida owner Wayne Huizenga tapped him on the shoulder to wish him luck before a start, Vanbiesbrouck responded with the kind of elbow rarely thrown at employers.) When an ashen-faced trainer relayed the stick-taping order to him, Vanbiesbrouck was miffed, but if the news rattled him, its effects were tape-delayed. He shut out Colorado for half the game before the Avalanche pumped three second-period goals past him in a stretch of 3:49 and went on to a 3-1 victory.
Tales of the tape did not catch MacLean's eye the next day as much as a column in the Denver Post that assailed the Panthers' conservative play. The article was more uninformed, cartoonish and vituperative than some of the others published in newspapers in cities around the NHL that have dumped on Florida's style—and the timing was right—so MacLean chose to use it as a motivational tool. He had the column photocopied and placed in every Panther's locker. Florida was so inspired by this high school psychology that the Panthers incurred a rash of bad penalties, allowed three power-play goals in the first period and absorbed an 8-1 beating, the second-worst in Stanley Cup finals history.
Throughout a fairy-tale season Florida had prided itself on being a group of ordinary, hardworking players, and now, in the glare of the finals, they had been exposed as nothing more than what they had pretended to be. When the prop of excellent goaltending was removed—Vanbiesbrouck, who was yanked after the first period in Game 2, couldn't outplay Roy—the Panthers' facade crumbled. Florida's effort was beyond reproach, except in Game 2, but its thin talent was overwhelmed by Colorado's lineup, especially by Forsberg and Sakic.
Roy says that someday, when he retires, "I'll be able to say Peter and Joe were the best forwards I ever played with." In 10 seasons with the Montreal Canadiens, during which time he played on two Stanley Cup-winning teams, Roy didn't have a teammate who could shape a game the way Sakic and Forsberg can. Sakic, the captain, has dazzling acceleration and a laser that masquerades as a wrist shot. Forsberg offers size—he's 6 feet and 190 pounds—creativity, toughness and an ability to play well in traffic.