There was a time when Colorado Avalanche tough guy Jeff Odgers was a goal scorer. The time was Dec. 12, 1998. Odgers—who had a fight-to-goal ratio of 15 to 1 in the 1998-99 regular season, who had seven fewer shots during this postseason than Detroit Red Wings captain Steve Yzerman had goals—last scored so long ago that Monica Lewinsky was still doing her bit to bring down a president instead of simply doing bits on Saturday Night Live. Then on Sunday, Odgers handcuffed Red Wings goalie Chris Osgood with a 45-foot slap shot that trickled into the net to give the Avalanche a 1-0 lead in Game 5 of the best-of-seven Western Conference semifinals. The sight of Odgers scoring off the first-period rush was so surreal, you half expected the assists to go to Dada and Kafka.
With that goal the Colorado- Detroit series became even more odd than it already was. There had been a seismic shift: The ice, which had tilted in favor of the Red Wings for the first two matches, had swung to the Avalanche for Games 3, 4 and 5. When Game 5 was over—Odgers would be amply supported in the 3-0 home win by goalie Patrick Roy, who had 36 saves, and the impeccable Peter Forsberg, who had a goal and an assist—the previously left-for-dead Colorado led the series 3-2 and two-time defending Stanley Cup champion Detroit was on the edge of the abyss.
The view was new for the Wings. In skipping through the playoffs the last two seasons, Detroit not only had never faced elimination but also had rarely been in jeopardy. In the first round last year the Red Wings fell behind the Phoenix Coyotes two games to one, but that was early in a series against a team that hadn't reached the second round since 1987, not late in a series against a veteran, star-studded Colorado team that won the Cup in 1996.
Certainly the Avalanche showed the heart of a champion in rebounding after losing the first two games in Denver. Colorado dropped the series opener 3-2 in overtime and then played without poise in Game 2, a 4-0 defeat punctuated by penalties that could be classified only as dumb and dumber. FIT TO BE SWEPT proclaimed a headline in the Denver Rocky Mountain News the morning after, not without justification. The Avalanche faced the unenviable task of going to Detroit to play the seemingly perfect team, which was unbeaten in the 1999 playoffs (6-0) and rich with confidence. "We knew we could play so much better than we had as long as we didn't get involved in all the crap that goes on in a series like this," Colorado wing Theo Fleury said of the numerous scrums. "Those guys in the other room know that Peter's a hothead, that [ defenseman Adam Foote's] a hothead, that I'm a hothead. They were getting to us. We just had to play better and not worry about what was happening after the whistles."
Fleury's face made him look like a refugee from an abattoir. There were stitches across the bridge of his nose and more stitches plus a purplish welt on his right cheek. If the eyes are the windows to the soul, then Fleury's lumpy mien was a road map to this series. The turning point occurred in the first period of Game 3. Yzerman scored the opening goal, as he had in the first two matches, and later in the period rang a shot off the crossbar, a hairbreadth from a two-goal lead and, in all likelihood, sayonara for the Avalanche. Then came the kindest cut of all for Colorado. With the Avalanche on a power play, Red Wings defenseman Nicklas Lidstrom accidentally raked his stick across Fleury's face, bloodying it and drawing a four-minute penalty. Colorado tied the game 1-1 during the ensuing five-on-three power play, and the swagger seemed to leak from the Red Wings as blood had from Fleury moments earlier. Detroit goalie Bill Ran-ford, who had played spectacularly in winning Games 1 and 2 in place of injured starter Chris Osgood, suddenly lost his touch. Colorado would drive him from the net in the second period of Games 3 and 4 (Ranford was strafed for a combined eight goals on only 37 shots in 5-3 and 6-2 losses and was replaced by third-stringer Norm Maracle) and force the Red Wings to hustle back Osgood, who was recovering from a sprained right knee suffered in the first round, to start Game 5.
For Osgood, sitting out seemed like a good career move. Thought to be the weak link in last season's run to the Cup, Osgood had never been held in as high regard in Detroit as had Mike Vernon, who had starred in the net the year before. The less Osgood played, the better he got in the eyes of Red Wings fans. With the Detroit net quickly turning into a red-light district—after the Wings had allowed only eight goals in their first six playoff games—Osgood would have morphed into Terry Sawchuk if he had never returned. A bum knee, however, didn't explain how Odgers's first playoff goal since 1995 trickled off Osgood's glove hand, a disconcerting reminder of the long-distance shots that dogged him last spring. After Sunday's game a defiant Osgood said that only he could judge how sore his knee was, and he wasn't talking about it, but it was simple enough to quote his body language. He rose shakily after several of his 23 saves, and during a TV timeout in the third period he skated to the bench for a quick massage by Wings trainer John Wharton. "He's O.K.," Detroit general manager Ken Holland said of Osgood after the game. "It's the playoffs."
No further explanations were required. The injuries that occur—or heal—can lift a team ( Colorado left wing Valeri Kamensky's return in Game 3 from a broken right arm permitted the Avalanche to move Adam Deadmarsh from wing to third-line center and drop pivot Dale Hunter to the fourth line, creating a more balanced lineup) or devastate it ( Detroit winger Martin Lapointe looked lost in Games 3, 4 and 5 after his center, Igor Larionov, fractured a pinky in Game 2), but they are all part of the process of winning championships.
Holland was sanguine on Sunday. He had retooled the Red Wings at the March 23 trading deadline with the acquisition of an insurance goalie in Ranford and three venerable pros, defensemen Chris Chelios and Ulf Samuelsson and forward Wendel Clark. There's nothing quite like a three-game spring losing streak to cause a redefinition of veteran as old. Clark, 33, played so lifelessly in Games 3 and 4 that he seemed to be aging more quickly than a portrait in the attic; Samuelsson, 35, sustained what the Red Wings were calling a groin injury in the first period on Sunday and didn't return to the game; and either the 37-year-old Chelios had suddenly lost a lot of muscle mass or he was taking an inordinate number of dives throughout the series. Earlier Chelios had been drawing penalties with what appeared to be gamesmanship, but on Sunday he fell victim to the same brain lock that had bedeviled Colorado earlier in the series, crosschecking Fleury when Fleury already was on his hands and knees. The Avalanche scored on the resulting power play, Forsberg roofing a shot from the right circle after making a brilliant, lunging pass to keep the puck in the zone.
Roy accepted his 12th career playoff shutout with the same unsurpassed calm with which he had greeted the spanking the Avalanche had received in the first two games. The arrogance he displayed earlier in his career seems to be fading because Roy, at 33, has seen everything, even a series like this. He was the central figure in a similar seesaw playoff six years ago. His Montreal Canadiens lost the first two games to the Avalanche's forebearers, the Quebec Nordiques, but won the next four, including a heroic Game 5 in which Roy left the match for several minutes to receive a cortisone injection to numb a bruised right shoulder. The win was the first of his 10 overtime victories on the way to that year's Stanley Cup.
If Colorado was headed down the same path (Game 6 was in Detroit on Tuesday and, if necessary, Game 7 in Denver on Thursday), one day it will be able to look back and marvel at how wildly the pendulum swung. The Red Wings didn't have the luxury of looking back. On the precipice of an early summer, the perfect playoff team was staring straight down.