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STANLEY CUP PLAYOFFS

Kings Can't Just Skate By

Simply Qualifying for the Playoffs Used to Be Enough, but Improvement Since Last Season Has Raised Expectations

April 18, 2002|JERRY CROWE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

DENVER — Playoff combatants for the second consecutive season, the star-studded Colorado Avalanche and the no-name Kings took surprisingly similar paths to the rematch beginning tonight in the Pepsi Center.

Both overcame the loss of key players and early-season inconsistency. Both won with tight defense, strong special teams and stingy goaltending.

And now both carry the weight of great expectations.

For the Avalanche, defending Stanley Cup champion and winner of eight consecutive division titles, this is business as usual.

For the Kings, rarely a playoff force, this is new territory.

Probably for the first time since 1993, when they made their one and only advance beyond the second round of the playoffs and reached the Stanley Cup finals, the Kings are involved in a first-round series many view as a tossup.

Only four points separated the Avalanche, which won the Northwest Division championship with 99 points and is seeded second in the West, from the Kings, who finished third in the Pacific Division and are seeded seventh.

"If the expectations are greater this year, I like that," King Coach Andy Murray said this week, "because it must mean that people are acknowledging that we've done some better things this year."

The Kings were delirious last season after upsetting the Detroit Red Wings before pushing the Avalanche to the brink of elimination in the Western Conference semifinals. They lost in Game 7, 5-1, in the Pepsi Center.

The Kings hadn't won a playoff game in eight years, so defenseman Aaron Miller understood the reaction--kind of. But he used to play for the Avalanche.

"Last year, I think maybe too many people were too happy," said Miller, traded to the Kings late last season in the deal that sent Rob Blake to the Avalanche. "I mean, we had a decent [showing], but we won one round....

"It was just a different atmosphere for me. This organization hadn't won a playoff round in six or seven or however many years, so to beat Detroit coming back from two games down, that was a major accomplishment. But it was only one round."

This time, Miller acknowledged, the bar has been raised.

"And that's the way it should be," he said. "I don't understand working hard to get to the playoffs and then not expecting to win the whole thing."

Last year's experience should help, center Bryan Smolinski said.

"It's gut-wrenching to lose in the final game like that and the other team goes on to win the Stanley Cup," he said. "We were that close and I think we expect a lot from ourselves, and so do our coaches. Our fans should too."

Despite the off-season departure of high-scoring left wing Luc Robitaille and the early-season losses of Jozef Stumpel and Glen Murray in the trade that brought top-line center Jason Allison from the Boston Bruins, the Kings posted the NHL's best record after Dec. 8, recovering from an 8-14-4-2 start.

Their 2.29 goals-against average was the best in franchise history, and goaltenders Felix Potvin and Jamie Storr both posted career-best goals-against averages.

The Kings led the league in power-play goals and power-play efficiency, and they ranked third in penalty killing, after finishing 24th last season.

The Avalanche, meanwhile, adjusted to the retirement of Ray Bourque and the absence of All-Star center Peter Forsberg, who returns tonight after sitting out the regular season, by emphasizing defense in front of Patrick Roy.

Arguably the greatest goaltender in NHL history, with a resume that includes a record 137 playoff victories and four Stanley Cup championships, the 36-year-old Roy enjoyed what he called "my best year," leading the league with a career-best 1.94 goals-against average.

With Blake, Adam Foote, Greg de Vries and trading-deadline acquisition Darius Kasparaitis leading the defense in front of the goaltender, the Avalanche set a franchise record by giving up a league-low 169 goals.

That helped compensate for a drop in productivity by 2001 league MVP Joe Sakic, whose goals and points fell from 54 and 118 to 26 and 79, and an overall dip in offensive firepower. Also without injured right wing Milan Hejduk for the season's last 20 games, the Avalanche scored 212 goals, fewest in franchise history, and was shut out 10 times, also a franchise record.

The defending champions still were potent on the power play, however, finishing fifth in the league. They were second in penalty killing.

They were 2-2 against the Kings, who outscored them, 14-13.

After similar seasons, the teams now share similar goals.

And Murray said this week that, in his mind, the Kings step onto the ice tonight on equal footing with the defending champions.

His players agree. The expectations, they say, are warranted.

"We have those expectations on ourselves," captain Mattias Norstrom said. "I don't think we have any problem with that. We want to do some damage."

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