Colorado avalanche coach Bob Hartley said he'd turned on his computer last Friday morning, seen an E-mail entitled I LOVE YOU and assumed Scotty Bowman had sent him a warm greeting—a joke taken from the morning's headlines but tinged with an irony that might have escaped even Hartley. The Love Bug really had struck. The Avalanche and Bowman's Detroit Red Wings, who for three of the past four springs had bickered like six-year-olds over the last brownie, mercifully completed a Stanley Cup series last week without the aid of a psychiatrist or a bail bondsman. The rivalry finally has cooled from insane to merely heated, an evolution that has paralleled Colorado's increasing dominance: The Avalanche has won eight of its last nine playoff games against Detroit, including a reasonably tame 4-2 series-clinching victory in Game 5 at home on Friday.
After that game the teams engaged in the traditional postseries handshakes, repaired to their dressing rooms to slather compliments on each other and then, for all anybody knows, went out together for a marshmallow roast. There are marked advantages in substituting etiquette for a tourniquet, as the once-incorrigible Colorado center Peter Forsberg has found out. Forsberg's brilliance comes from a unique amalgam of skills, styles and attitudes. If you borrowed a dollop of Jaromir Jagr's intimidating strength on the puck, a drop of Paul Kariya's speed, a dash of John LeClair's stevedore toughness, a pinch of Teemu Selanne's finesse, a healthy dose of Michael Peca's body-checking skills and a full measure of Steve Yzerman's commitment to playing all 200 feet of the ice, the product would be a rough approximation of Forsberg.
He isn't the NHL's best player—"Some would argue I'm not even in the top 10," Forsberg says—but he has the broadest set of skills. The only facet of his game that's diminished these days is surliness. Forsberg, 26, used to play with a chip on his shoulder, a shoulder he would attempt to drive into anybody who had the temerity to knock him down or even look at him cockeyed. Forsberg was a vigilante, his style as self-destructive as it was eye-catching.
"Pete got into problems looking for stuff," says Avalanche captain Joe Sakic. "He got tired playing that way, and it took him away from his real strengths. When he's avoiding confrontations, when he's more rested, we're all better off. I've talked to him. We've all talked to him for a long time, and he just said, I know. I know.' "
Forsberg, who was shifted to left wing early in the first round, which freed him from some down-low defensive responsibilities, finally applied the oft-taught lesson. After having had more penalty minutes than points in the postseason for the past two years, he shunned his role as judge, jury and executioner against Detroit and scored three game-deciding goals, set up the other winner and made several plays worthy of being stored on a virus-free floppy disk. "The general feeling on Forsberg is he wants to prove you're not going to push him around," Yzerman, the Wings' captain, said on Friday night. "This series he played more disciplined than he has in the past. He's matured a bit, and now he doesn't get off his game. We would have rather had him running around trying to hit people than getting the puck and trying to make a play."
Almost five minutes into the third period on Friday, Forsberg fired a tracer that shot past the glove of goalie Chris Osgood into the Detroit net. That series-winning goal seemed almost pedestrian after more than a week of unchecked virtuosity. If hockey is a game of mistakes, it's also a collection of moments. Forsberg had at least one moment in every game, leaving an imprint mat had nothing to do with his elbow and a Red Wing's face.
He warmed up with a tip-in goal in Game 1 and then won Game 2 with a play notable not only for its deftness but also for the two defensemen he victimized. On a four-on-three power play, Forsberg burst in alone on Nicklas Lidstrom, a perennial Norris Trophy finalist. Lidstrom dutifully pokechecked the puck, but it struck Forsberg's shin pad and caromed back onto his stick. Forsberg danced past Lidstrom, then pulled the puck inside to avoid the sliding Chris Chelios, a three-time Norris winner, before beaming one into the top corner. It was a dazzling play made at freeway speeds. "We're on the bench, and we could hardly believe it," says Colorado checking winger Dave Reid. "He made two great players look as silly as rookies."
Although that goal has been rerun more often than a Seinfeld episode, it was only Forsberg's second most audacious play of the series. In the Avalanche's 3-1 loss in Game 3, Forsberg was being hounded by Lidstrom behind the Detroit net. With severely limited options but seemingly limitless creativity, he passed the puck through Lidstrom's feet and off the back of the net to himself before circling for a scoring chance with the flummoxed Lidstrom in pursuit. "Maybe he got that one from Wayne Gretzky," says Red Wings scout Mark Howe, a former All-Star defenseman. "Some guys have that play. I saw [ Edmonton Oilers wing] Ryan Smyth do it twice in one game. What I haven't seen is anybody do that to Nick."
Two nights later, in the pivotal match of the series, Forsberg helped Colorado steal a 3-2 overtime victory in Detroit by chipping the most delicate of passes over Chelios's stick on a two-on-one, a feed Chris Drury neatly converted. "Peter was the best player in this series," Lidstrom says. "By far."
Forsberg's offensive production and almost preternatural calm were a stunning reversal for a player who in 1999-2000 had slouched through the worst of his six NHL seasons. In 49 games he scored only 14 goals and had half as many game-winners (two) as he did in the nine games he played in the first two playoff rounds. His 37 assists were below his career average of .89 per game, which was fourth-best in NHL history. "The numbers, as bad as they were, were actually kind to me, because I didn't play well at all," Forsberg says. "You play on the power play with [Raymond] Bourque and Sakic, you're going to get points. But I wasn't good. I wasn't skating. I wasn't doing anything. It was frustrating. You start to wonder, Have I lost it?"