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STANLEY CUP PLAYOFFS

Colorado Can't Care Who's Not There

Hockey: Avalanche offense hasn't been same without Forsberg and Hejduk, and team isn't sure when they will return, but confidence remains.

April 16, 2002|LONNIE WHITE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The NHL's regular season is over, and Joe Sakic and his Colorado Avalanche teammates are primed to defend their Stanley Cup championship--with or without Peter Forsberg and Milan Hejduk.

"We're ready for another run and can't wait for it to start," Sakic said of the Avalanche, which will play the Kings in the first round, starting Thursday with Game 1 at Pepsi Center in Denver. "This is when the fun starts. You have to love this time of the year.

"We're really not sure when [Forsberg and Hejduk will return from injuries]. But even if we don't get them back, we have enough talent here to win it again."

Forsberg, who did not play during the regular season because of a sabbatical and subsequent surgery for a torn tendon in his left foot, has been skating with the Avalanche for the last two weeks and is believed close to returning to the lineup. But Coach Bob Hartley is not about to push his Olympian and All-Star center until he's 100%.

"There's absolutely no rush. He's ahead of schedule," Hartley said. "He's progressing well and we're just waiting for our medical staff to declare him fit for contact drills.... Once he gets some contact, we'll be able to move on and get him into the lineup."

Hejduk, a forward who sat out the last 20 games because of an abdominal strain, also has been skating with his teammates since late March. Before his injury, Hejduk had 21 goals and 44 points in 62 games.

"Our medical staff has been working very sharply with Milan and Peter, and whenever they feel that those guys are ready, they'll play," said Hartley, who has not ruled out using either player against the Kings.

Even without Forsberg and Hejduk, the Avalanche was one of the league's elite teams, although its offense has only 212 goals, which ranks 18th in the NHL this season.

With goalie Patrick Roy, defenseman Rob Blake and Sakic leading the way, Colorado had a memorable season, finishing with 99 points and winning the Northwest Division title, the team's eighth consecutive division title, equaling a league record set by the Montreal Canadiens from 1975-82.

"Injuries have been big on our team, but we've found a way to get through it and put ourselves into position to get home ice and a second seed in the playoffs," said Blake, who will be facing his former King teammates in the playoffs for the second consecutive year. "The most important thing for us now is the health of Forsberg or Hejduk. If we get them back, that's close to 60 goals back into our lineup."

Although Colorado is the defending champion, the Avalanche is not favored to win the Stanley Cup. That honor belongs to the Detroit Red Wings, who dominated the regular season with a league-high 116 points.

"It's only right for Detroit to be considered the team to beat, based on the way the Red Wings played this season," Blake said. "That really doesn't change anything for us because being the defending Stanley Cup champion, it doesn't matter who we play. Every team is geared up to beat us. It's been that way all year."

Roy, who got some valuable rest when he chose not to play for Canada in the Winter Olympics, is a major reason the Avalanche are expected to be a force in the playoffs. The all-time leader in regular-season wins has played on four Stanley Cup championship teams, and his 137 playoff victories put him in a class by himself.

"The main objective will always be winning the Stanley Cup," he told the Denver Post at the start of the season. "I've had a chance to touch it four times, and I hope to touch it a fifth time."

Roy made the difference in Colorado's playoff run last year.

After giving up four goals in a Game 1 loss to the Kings in the second round, Roy responded by giving up only 28 goals over the next 18 playoff games, three of them shutouts.

"First of all, I've never been a person to take things for granted," he said. "Secondly, I will play for exactly the same things I have in past years. You always find some objectives ... to make things interesting."

Another strength for the Avalanche is depth. Thanks to the growing maturity of Chris Drury and Steven Reinprecht, and the emergence of young forwards Alex Tanguay, Radim Vrbata and Martin Skoula, Colorado was able to keep the season humming without missing a beat.

"At the beginning, it was a little rough because we had a lot of new faces and we were already coming off a pretty long season," Drury said. "That slowed us down early in the season. But once everyone got adjusted to each other, things started to come together.

"We're not too concerned about what other people think. We know what we have and if people are predicting other teams to win the Cup, that's fine with us. The only thing that really matters is who is there at the end and that's where we want to be."

The wild card for Colorado will be Forsberg.

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