Avalanche now need to pass character test

Updated: May 11, 2006, 4:11 PM ET
By Terry Frei | Special to ESPN.com

The Ducks still are officially Mighty for the rest of the playoffs before the first half of the name disappears as another step in the transition to new ownership.

At this point, they're playing that way, too.

The comical thing about some of the reaction in Denver to Anaheim's 3-0 lead over Colorado in the Western Conference semifinals is the implicit premise that the Mighty Ducks have come out of nowhere. Well, that, and the idea Ilya Bryzgalov has been proven to be the second coming of Ken Dryden, though they both have Plato and Nietzsche on their reading lists.

Joe Sakic
Brian Bahr/Getty ImagesThrough three games, Joe Sakic has yet to score a goal against the Mighty Ducks.

Colorado has been largely awful and overmatched in the series, though the 4-3 overtime loss to Joffrey Lupul and Anaheim in Game 3 was an improvement.

Scott Niedermayer has been the best player on the ice the entire series, playing marathon minutes with Francois Beauchemin and short-circuiting both the Joe Sakic-centered line and the suddenly inept Colorado power play.

The defensive line of Samuel Pahlsson, Jeff Friesen and Rob "The Other" Niedermayer, put together for Game 6 against Calgary, has continued its neutralizing effectiveness.

Though Teemu Selanne had a bad game Tuesday, the speed and quickness he has displayed playing on the line with former undrafted free agents Chris Kunitz and Andy McDonald underscores a remarkable comeback story.

And, yes, Bryzgalov, who finally gave up a goal (three of them, in fact) on Tuesday night, has been solid, dating back to the Calgary series. Yet, he hasn't exactly been called on to stand on his head, on a stack of texts from a Philosophy 505 course, during the 249-minute, 15-second shutout streak.

The Ducks have been one of the better teams in the league since Thanksgiving, as those paying attention noticed. An Anaheim-San Jose conference final, which seems likely, isn't at all shocking. Detroit's and (to a lesser extent) Dallas' first-round exits were surprising, but the world hasn't been turned upside down in the West.

"There's not a lot to talk about," Avalanche coach Joel Quenneville said of the message he would deliver to his team at Wednesday's practice. "Except that, hey, we all have pride, we've all been in this situation all year where we've overcome a lot of obstacles here. We just have to look at the first period of Game 4 and build off of that."

Said Sakic: "This team hasn't quit all year. We've faced a lot of adversity and we're not going to quit."

It's probably fair to say that there isn't a more resented franchise in the league than Colorado. That starts with the perception that the long-suffering Colorado hockey fans had to wait an agonizing several months to experience a Stanley Cup celebration, or about 85 years and three months shorter than the wait for Red Sox fans. It's accompanied by the perceived arrogance of the organization, under general manager Pierre Lacroix through a parade of ownerships, and the incorrect accusation that he had an unlimited budget, and exceeded it.

So there are plenty of folks around the league, regardless of location, gloating about the Avalanche's ignominious showing in this series. They indeed have been, on balance, terrible, with the roster's flaws (tied to some of Lacroix's decisions) exposed.

Yes, this treatise is presumptuous. It assumes that the Avalanche are toast in this series. There probably will be folks in the next 24 hours trying to find Dave Lewis and other members of the 1975 Islanders to (again) get their comments about how coming back from a 3-0 deficit in a series isn't impossible.

That assumption is a dead-lock cinch.

Colorado is dead, and now the challenge is for this team to pass a test of character by at least showing it wants to extend the series and go out fighting.

That brings us to a reality that should be kept in mind in any NHL evaluation at this point: In the wake of the league's new landscape, this was a transitional year. Some have handled it better than others, but the circumstances were unique, especially for those organizations forced to slash payroll, and won't be replicated. Who handled it better?

Detroit's Ken Holland, who cleared out some slow deadwood and oversaw a remarkable regular season? Or Lacroix or Bobby Clarke or Glen Sather? If the discussion is only those high-profile organizations that either are done or on the verge of being shut out of the Final Four, the issue actually should be: OK, where do they go from here? Is there a coherent plan? Are there recognitions of the flaws and what needs to be done, or are heads buried in the sand?

The tricky thing in Colorado this season has been the necessity to separate the issues, a challenge that was too complicated for many to grasp, much less undertake.

And those issues are:

  • Did the Avalanche's retooled roster, as constituted, do about as well as could be expected, and maybe more? Absolutely, especially because of the accompanying first-round failures of the Red Wings and the Peter Forsberg-led Flyers. Joel Quenneville has done a terrific coaching job, other than his headshake-inducing botching of the goaltending situation early in the season. Some of the offseason signings, primarily of Andrew Brunette and Ian Laperriere, were undeniably savvy. The losses of the injured Steve Konowalchuk (his return from wrist surgery for Games 1 and 2 against the Ducks was unsuccessful and he was scratched with a groin injury for Game 3), Marek Svatos (the team's leading goal scorer when he underwent shoulder surgery in March) and Ossi Vaananen, hurt. (That said, this is not the only team in the league that suffered season-ending injuries.) For most of the season, the Avalanche rightfully got credit for being a scrappy, fun-to-watch team that, unlike some of the more talented Avalanche squads of the past, showed up every night.

    Yes, but …

  • Should Lacroix be held accountable for some of the decisions that assembled the post-lockout roster? Absolutely, definitely, positively. Start with the lowball offers to Forsberg and Adam Foote, which were perplexing, not so much for the total dollars involved, but for their construction. Only $1.5 million in the first seasons, but with escalating salaries that meant their cap numbers would have been considerably higher. That was the worst of both worlds, suspiciously looking as if the Avalanche wanted to be able to say they made offers, but neither wanted nor expected them to be accepted. To this day, the argument here remains that one or the other could have been brought back, however the numbers were juggled.

    The physical defenseman might be a bit of a dinosaur in the new game, but Foote is more mobile than Derian Hatcher, and with Colorado, he could have stepped away from the clutch-and-grab game and provided a needed dose of fire and passion. And while Forsberg's history of injuries makes him suspect, his presence would have retained that pick-your-poison power up front (see "Marleau and Thornton," among others) and prevented a team like the Ducks from getting away with focusing entirely on shutting down Sakic's line.

    Lacroix, though, has maintained that he has a long-range plan, one that is tied to having significant cap room to respond over the summer. His two-season commitments to Patrice Brisebois, Pierre Turgeon and Brad May could come back to haunt him, though, even if he faces reality and considers buying out one, or all three. Also, the acquisition of Jose Theodore limits some of the options, as well, because he comes with a $5.3 million cap figure in each of the next two seasons.

    There was some talk that Theodore's acquisition in March signaled that Lacroix was decisively trying to win this season. Some of the Avalanche players even took it that way. But the truth probably is the opposite. At that point, the Avalanche couldn't even be assured that Theodore would play this season or be ready for the postseason. With interim goalie Peter Budaj stepping in for a month, there was no guarantee Colorado would even make the playoffs.

    That deal was made for 2006-07 and 2007-08. The hope was that once he escaped the white-hot spotlight on him and his family in Montreal, and given the chance to get his head on straight, Theodore would show the form he displayed in the final part of 2001-02 and in the 2004 series against Boston.

    Could it happen? Sure, it could. Theodore has been something between shaky and competent in the postseason, including when he had 50 saves in Game 5 against Dallas and actually played pretty well in the Game 3 loss to the Ducks. But if Theodore isn't more than decent, given the price tag in the New NHL, the deal is a disaster.

    How does Lacroix respond? Is he too stubborn to admit his mistakes? Can he take advantage of the slack he deserves for his 11-year body of work in Colorado, which (officially at least) has sold every ticket since late 1995? Can he get the Avalanche back among the elite?

    The real test starts now.

    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

    ESPN.com contributor
    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."