Early clinchers enjoying their full week off
SAN JOSE, Calif. -- Scott Parker was still groggy from sleep Tuesday morning when the first text message arrived. It was from Dan Hinote, a Colorado defenseman -- and Parker's teammate before his offseason move to San Jose.
"We're coming! Watch out!" the message read.
The Sharks' enforcer sent back something humorous and unprintable, then began to think about the upcoming playoff matchup: the unsung, overachieving Sharks against the Avalanche's high-priced collection of superstars.
"I'm sure they're going to be the favorite, but we've surprised a lot of teams this year," Parker said. "They're pretty loaded, but I wouldn't put anything past us."
San Jose is the higher seed after earning 104 points and winning the Pacific Division. However, it would be hard to find a hockey observer who honestly favors the Sharks in the teams' third playoff meeting in six seasons.
While the Avalanche are built to make an immediate run at the Stanley Cup, the Sharks surprised even themselves by surging to the NHL's third-best record in the regular season. When Colorado visits the Shark Tank for the series opener Thursday, San Jose will attempt its toughest trick yet in a magical season.
"This was a team that was supposed to run away with the conference, if not the whole league," Sharks coach Ron Wilson said of the Avalanche. "They might be looking to make up for it now. If you look at talent, man for man, they have to be the favorite."
The matchup wasn't set until Monday night, when Calgary finished off Vancouver in a first-round Game 7. After the Sharks eliminated St. Louis on Thursday, Wilson and his assistants made equal preparations for Colorado and the Canucks.
The Sharks also got three relaxing days before Monday's full-scale practice -- and all told, they'll go a full week between games.
"That's unheard of in the playoffs, so we took advantage of it," said Mike Ricci, another former Colorado forward now skating in San Jose.
All that rest was beneficial to injured forwards Alyn McCauley and Scott Thornton, who both missed the Sharks' clincher over the Blues. McCauley skipped practice Tuesday after participating Monday, and Thornton skated for the first part of the latest practice.
The Sharks will need every healthy body they can get against the Avalanche, who are loaded with speed, talent and toughness. Colorado is one of the few teams capable of keeping up with the speedy Sharks, as demonstrated in the Avalanche's two regular-season wins over San Jose.
"They definitely have more skill and more depth," Sharks defenseman Mike Rathje said. "This is probably an ultimate challenge for us. Everybody is going to have to be up for it. We're a younger team with less experience, but this is how you gain more experience."
The teams met in the second round two seasons ago, with Colorado winning in seven games. Some believe the series was decided when San Jose's Teemu Selanne missed an open net during Game 7, eventually won by Colorado.
Of course, Selanne now skates for the Avalanche after declining to exercise his option in San Jose last summer.
The Sharks expect fast-paced games, perhaps with more scoring than usually seen in the postseason. San Jose might have its only edge in net, where Evgeni Nabokov has played superbly. David Aebischer is in his first postseason for the Avalanche.
"Then again, Aebischer outplayed Marty Turco by a country mile in the first round," Wilson said, referring to Dallas' goalie. "This is a tough team to match up against. This is going to have to be a real group effort."
Colorado LW Alex Tanguay had an off-ice workout Tuesday and will try to practice Wednesday. He missed Game 5 against Dallas after bruising his leg the game before. Tanguay's status for Game 1 against San Jose will be determined after he practices. ... Avs LW Paul Kariya's sprained ankle is improving, but he still hasn't been cleared to start skating. Coach Tony Granato said Kariya won't join the Avalanche on the trip to San Jose. ... San Jose has home ice in the second round for the first time in team history.
Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press
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