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Into Thin Air In a stunning reversal, Detroit's two-game lead evaporated when Colorado stormed back to win three straight

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 Ranford, 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,
cross-checking 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.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY DAVID E. KLUTHO Wide open Colorado's Chris Drury reaches to tap a rebound past an out-of-position Ranford and give the Avalanche a 1-0 lead in Game 4.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY DAVID E. KLUTHO Wipeout Colorado's Shjon Podein clobbers Slava Kozlov into the boards during the Avalanche's 5-3 win in Game 3.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY DAVID E. KLUTHO Nifty work Milan Hejduk stickhandles past two Wings toward a Game 3 scoring chance.

If the eyes are the windows to the soul, then Fleury's lumpy
mien was a road map to this playoff series.

"We knew we could play better if we didn't get involved in all
the crap that goes on in a series like this," Fleury said.