Mike Milbury distilled the dilemma to these words: "Who are you going to check?"
Eight hours before a recent game between the New York Islanders and the Colorado Avalanche, Milbury, the Islanders' coach and general manager, pinpointed the predicament in which Colorado's opponents find themselves: If, like most teams, you have one checking line, whom do you try to shut down, Joe Sakic or Peter Forsberg?
Pick your poison. Sakic, 27, the center on the Avalanche's first line, is slick, quick and equipped with the most lethal wrist shot in hockey. He releases it in stride, from odd angles, with no windup and no warning. The 23-year-old Forsberg, the center on Colorado's second line, plays with dazzling creativity and against type—he's a Swede with a mean streak.
Who is better? Milbury gives the edge to Forsberg, whom he calls "the best player in the league right now, no question."
Who's the second-best player? "Probably the guy on the same team," Milbury adds.
The last time two young centers this talented played on the same team, Wayne Gretzky and Mark Messier were Edmonton Oilers. If you think Tori Spelling is spoiled, check out Colorado hockey fans. One year they have no NHL team, the next year the Avalanche—the former Quebec Nordiques, who were sold and moved to Denver in June 1995—come to town and win the Stanley Cup. Colorado has Patrick Roy, a Hall of Fame goalie who talks trash (and backs it up) in two languages, a platoon of hulking, mobile defensemen and Forsberg and Sakic. At week's end Forsberg and Sakic were the top two scorers in the NHL, tied with 36 points.
Last Saturday's 2-1 victory over the New Jersey Devils ran the Avalanche's record to 16-6-4, the best mark in the Western Conference. Colorado has fallen only twice in its last 17 games, since a 5-1 road loss to the Calgary Flames on Oct. 22. That defeat spurred Sakic, the Avalanche's soft-spoken captain, to do something he rarely does: address the team. "I told them we had to get our focus back and get on a roll," he says. Sakic hasn't had to give a speech since. That suits him just fine. He's a quiet leader, someone who leads by example. When asked to provide a sample of a typical Sakic dressing room oration, former Colorado defenseman Craig Wolanin, who now plays for the Tampa Bay Lightning, came up with two: 1) "O.K., boys, bus is leaving at noon." 2) "O.K., boys, bus is leaving at six."
"He's a little better than that," Avalanche coach Marc Crawford says. Indeed, teammates report that Sakic more than holds his own in the exchange of verbal abuse that is the staple of dressing room life. He needles left wing Eric Lacroix, whose father, Pierre, is the Colorado general manager, by calling him G.M.'s Boy, and he seldom misses an opportunity to tweak right wing Adam Deadmarsh for his "bowling pin" physique.
Nor does Sakic spare the equally laconic Forsberg, riding him for his allegedly lackadaisical off-season workout regimen, which, according to Sakic, consists of this: "He goes home, plays a round of golf in the morning, another round in the afternoon, gets hammered, then plays another round. The sun stays up over there till three in the morning."
Though Forsberg insists that Sakic grossly misrepresents how he spends his summer vacations—"I work out a lot," Forsberg says—he regretfully reports that he played no midnight golf last summer. Between the Stanley Cup finals, which ended on June 10, and training camp for the World Cup, which began on Aug. 11, he was off the ice for less than three weeks.