Miracle run bodes well for Avalanche's future

Updated: April 6, 2007, 4:15 PM ET
By Terry Frei | Special to ESPN.com

The Colorado Avalanche's sellout streak officially ended at 487 games early in the season, lending credence to the argument (a very tired and inaccurate argument, but a common one) that Denver wasn't, ahem, a hockey town at all.

Officially, the average figure hadn't fallen much, but once tickets are known to be available, it's difficult to arrest a slide, especially if the perception is the team isn't worth supporting.

Milan Hejduk
Brian Bahr/Getty ImagesHeading into the weekend, Milan Hejduk has four goals and two assists in his last five games.

Right, Boston?

By early 2007, the Avalanche seemed on track to miss the playoffs for the first time in the team's 12-year stay in Denver, meaning there would be a further deterioration in the season-ticket base.

Making $5.5 million this season and set to make $6 million next season, Jose Theodore was being a good soldier and working hard, but was mostly assigned to baseball-hat duty on the bench. The Avalanche's 2006 trade for him seemed both embarrassing and paralyzing, and potentially damaging to the long-term image of team president Pierre Lacroix, also the general manager at the time of the deal.

Coach Joel Quenneville was on the hot seat and virtually everyone on the roster, other than Joe Sakic and rookies Paul Stastny and Wojtek Wolski, seemed potentially available at the trading deadline.

Other than that, everything was going well.

Now? Like the posse in "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid," these guys won't go away.

Going into the final weekend, the Avalanche are still long shots to catch the Flames for the eighth and final spot, a position that most likely would earn them the right to be thrashed by the Red Wings in the first round.

Colorado has to get at least one more point than the Flames on Saturday -- when the Flames play the dreadful Oilers and the Avalanche meet Nashville in Peter Forsberg's first game in Denver as a visitor -- to be within two points and have it come down to a showdown game on Sunday in Denver.

Can't find that one on your preprinted master schedule? It wasn't there, originally. It's there now because the Dec. 21 Avalanche-Flames game was postponed after a paralyzing snowstorm, despite the fact the Flames were in Denver, ensconced at a downtown hotel. To their credit, the NHL went along with the pleas of Colorado public officials to keep folks off the roads and Flames management didn't raise a stink.

And now, there is a chance it could come down to that game. (By the way, the forecast is for snow over the weekend in Denver. In April.)

The rescheduled game is just one more bizarre twist in one of the more bizarre closing runs in recent NHL memory. The Avalanche, written off at the end of February, are 14-1-2 since then, the only loss a 3-0 setback to Roberto Luongo and the Canucks in Denver. It's as if being out of it was energizing and took the pressure off.

Stastny, who most of us second-guessed for leaving the University of Denver after his sophomore year, has shown why some heady players can have a seamless transition because they can be more productive with better talent around them. He went on a rookie league-record point streak of 20 games.

At 37, Sakic had heads shaking because he is showing no signs of slowing down, even after Forsberg's departure meant he now has seen the top defensive pairs virtually all of the time for the past two seasons. His insistence on one-year deals over the rest of his career mocks his own determination to annually assess whether his game is slipping. (The only other possibility, and an outside one, would be if he considers finishing his career in his hometown of Vancouver.)

Milan Hejduk, who seemed to have lost his touch after Forsberg's departure and looked as if the opened-up game might actually have hurt his production because he was terrific at maneuvering in tight spaces, has awakened (witness his hat trick in a victory in Vancouver on Thursday).

And Peter Budaj? The Slovak goalie was thrown in more out of necessity because of Theodore's ongoing problems. Now you know Budaj has to be doing well. Quenneville, who generally treats every goalie as if he is worth embracing as much as his former Colorado Rockies teammate, the hapless Swede Hardy Astrom, is even saying nice things about the netminder. Handling his goalies always has been Quenneville's Achilles, but this has worked out.

Make no mistake, the Avalanche are in this position, still needing help to make the postseason, because of their own errors. On the ice, the Avalanche will most likely have gotten going too late. Too little, too late. The entire middle tier of the Western Conference was collectively strong down the stretch, helping prevent the Avalanche from making up more ground. But in a sense, that's their own fault because they weren't better, sooner.

Some of those problems stem from the front office's relative mishandling of the new salary-cap era. It wasn't just about the necessity to pare the payroll. It also involved miscalculation and the signings of the over-the-hill Patrice Brisebois and Pierre Turgeon, plus Brad May, whose arrival in the wake of the Steve Moore imbroglio was interpreted by many as a one-finger salute to Colorado fans. Interestingly, both Brisebois and Turgeon are now on the injured list and May was traded to Anaheim at the deadline.

"We don't want to be the first guys in Denver that will miss the playoffs," Hejduk said after the Avalanche's win Thursday. "Twenty games ago, it looked definitely like we would miss the playoffs. All of a sudden, we started winning. But we need a lot of help."

Sakic said the Avalanche are "definitely earning it right now. But we're in the same position we've always been. We have to win our next game and still get some help. Hopefully, Sunday will mean something for us."

The run, which was jump-started with an improbable 4-0 road swing that included wins at Detroit and Buffalo, has gotten them more attention in Denver than if they meandered down the stretch to end up with, say, the sixth seed.

The best thing that can happen to the Avalanche now? (And this tunes out the whining from the comptroller and the ownership, the Stan Kroenke empire that also includes the Nuggets, the Pepsi Center, a new soccer stadium and soccer and lacrosse teams.) The best scenario is Colorado wins its final two, finishes on a 16-1-2 run, but barely misses the postseason.

Then, it ends with a "wait-'til-next-year" flourish, not a loss to the Red Wings in the first round. And there is hope for the future. Considerable cap room will open up after the departure of, at the very least, Brisebois and Turgeon, plus there's the elimination of $4.6 million in bonus payments to Sakic and Rob Blake that came due this season and counted against the Avalanche cap figure.

So the Avalanche in theory should be in position to make a run at at least one high-profile unrestricted free agent, if any are on the market after July 1. If the Avalanche admit trading Chris Drury was a monumental mistake, which it was, they could try to bring Drury (or Daniel Briere, since the Sabres might not be able to afford both) to Denver.

Colorado prospects include Chris Stewart, who just signed and went to Albany following the end of his major-junior season at Kingston, University of Minnesota center Ryan Stoa, Ohio State winger Tom Fritsche and two Hobey Baker Award finalists: Dartmouth's David Jones and Michigan's T.J. Hensick.

So while snow still might be falling in Denver, the sky isn't.

Terry Frei is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He is the author of "Third Down and a War to Go" and "Horns, Hogs, and Nixon Coming."

Terry Frei

Special to ESPN.com
Terry Frei is a columnist for the Denver Post. He is also the author of "Third Down and a War to Go" and "Horns, Hogs, and Nixon Coming."