No team has survived the Bataan death march to a Cup with a shortened bench since the 1994 New York Rangers. The past six champions have had at least three dependable lines and, in the cases of two-time winners New Jersey and Detroit, four. Last year Sakic, among the NHL's fittest forwards, saw his postseason production dip precipitously: two goals and seven assists in 17 games.
"When it comes to crunch time, Colorado tends to get down to seven forwards and only three or four defensemen," says a veteran Western Conference opponent. "The Avalanche's third line [ Steve Reinprecht centering Shjon Podein and Eric Messier] is pretty good but doesn't get a chance to play as much as it should. Colorado can send out six defensemen, but doesn't. I don't think you can get deep into the playoffs that way anymore. There's only so much Sakic and Forsberg can do, getting pounded every other night. The Avalanche is going to miss Deadmarsh. He was Colorado's power forward, the guy who protected Forsberg. He was also the team's leading point getter last year in the playoffs [tying Forsberg with 15]. You need a gritty offensive guy in the playoffs, and Deadmarsh was it. [Ville] Nieminen is doing a nice job on that line for a first-year player, but he's not Deadmarsh."
The other Colorado question mark is penalty killing: Given the quality of personnel, the Avalanche's ranking this season (19) was absurdly low. Roy prefers that his defenders take away passing lanes while he worries about the shooter, and with its stationary penalty-killing box and defenders' active sticks, Colorado deflects numerous passes. However, the penalty killers generally haven't attacked on the half boards, allowing shooters to walk in on Roy. The Avalanche does pressure the puck down low, but until recently it was allowing the power-play point men too much time to set up.
Hartley has been tinkering with the penalty killing since mid-season, trying to ratchet up the pressure on the opposition. It seems to be working. Over a seven-game stretch last month, Colorado allowed only three power play goals in 33 attempts. "We understand the importance of penalty killing," Roy says. "We have to rotate better, and when the point men fumble the puck, we have to jump on them. Last year during Game 7 in Dallas, the Stars scored their first two goals [in a 3-2 win] on the power play."
Colorado will be playing not only for a Cup but also for a legacy, one its players are on the brink of squandering. The 2001 playoffs are their best, if not their last, chance to reestablish the six-year-old Avalanche as one of the leading teams of its time, not simply a tease. "You don't want to think about it," Foote says, "but if you look at the last five years, with our talent we should have been there [in the Cup finals] at least one more time."