The Land of Oz
Sandis Ozolinsh's return restored Colorado to Cup-contender status
Here's avalanche defenseman Sandis Ozolinsh's assessment of his team: "Things are awesome. Everybody's happy, the guys are great."
There have been high times in Colorado since Ozolinsh finally ended a season-long contract impasse on Jan. 5 and signed a two-year deal worth $6.7 million. One of the NHL's premier offensive defensemen, Ozolinsh joined the Avalanche five days later, and Colorado (29-19-4 at week's end) immediately reeled off a 12-game winning streak that restored its status as a Stanley Cup contender.
Hard as it may be for Ozolinsh to believe, there were some difficult times for the Avalanche before his return. Consider: a season-opening 1-5-1 stretch; a rash of injuries that, at one point, sidelined six defensemen; a locker room uprising against winger Eric Lacroix, son of Colorado general manager Pierre Lacroix, whom many players viewed as a stooge for his dad before Eric was traded in November; and an outburst by goalie Patrick Roy, who, after being removed from a game on Dec. 21, smashed video equipment in the office of rookie coach Bob Hartley.
Roy's explosion was an extreme example of the uneasiness some players felt toward the 38-year-old Hartley, who replaced Marc Crawford after Colorado was upset by the Oilers in the first round of the playoffs last spring. Hartley, who never played in the NHL, was a coach in the minors for 10 years, the last two with the Avalanche's AHL affiliate in Hershey, Pa. He shook up Colorado with his hard-line approach and by reapportioning ice time. Players weren't above making faces at Hartley behind his back. "We were struggling, and having new coaches was difficult," says wing Claude Lemieux. "Now everybody feels good about himself—and the coaching staff."
The turnaround would not have come without the cooperation of elite centers Peter Forsberg and Joe Sakic. When Hartley made the bold move of teaming them on a line with rookie right wing Milan Hejduk on Dec. 2, Forsberg accepted his assignment to left wing without complaint. The line has controlled games. During the winning streak Sakic had 10 goals and nine assists, and Forsberg had four goals and 12 assists.
Colorado also helped itself by appeasing the tetchy but talented Roy, who was set to become an unrestricted free agent this summer. On Jan. 25, Roy received a two-year, $15 million extension, and in seven games after signing the deal, Roy allowed only 11 goals. "Ed be lying to say the contract wasn't on my mind," he says. "I'm so happy it's done."
Then there's Ozolinsh, who had a goal and eight assists during the 12-game streak and not only provided firepower from the backline but also some welcome levity. "I still suck from being away," Ozolinsh complained last Friday. "I can't make a pass." Reminded of an excellent pass he had made in the previous game, Ozolinsh said, "O.K., so I'm good. We're all good. This place is awesome!"
General Managers' Poll
Giving Credit Where It's Due
When asked to name the NHL's most underrated player, five of the league's 22 general managers who responded chose Flyers forward Rod Brind'Amour. Centers Pavol Demitra of the Blues, Michael Peca of the Sabres and Alexei Yashin of the Senators each got two votes, while 11 other players received one apiece.