- Terry Frei, Special to ESPN.com
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DENVER -- The way I remember it, when the Red Sox lost the first three games of the 2004 American League Championship Series to the Yankees, Boston catcher and captain Jason Varitek was moved to say: "Our backs are against the wall, and we just need to finish our checks and take it one game at a time."
And with New York holding that 3-0 lead in the series, didn't Yankees shortstop Derek "Tiger" Jeter pause between filming commercials to opine: "Them Red Sox is done like dinner"?
What? It didn't happen that way? Perhaps hockey has affected my memory.
The Red Wings have the Avalanche in that position heading into Thursday night's Game 4 in the Western Conference semifinals in Denver.
So far, perhaps in part because Nashville rebounded after dropping the first two games to at least throw a scare into Detroit in the first round, the Red Wings haven't allowed their minds to wander against Colorado.
And it leaves Detroit coach Mike Babcock believing that sweeping the series would be a huge benefit.
"Every time you play, there's chances for injuries and fatigue, and the fresher you get, the better chance you have," Babcock said after the Red Wings' Wednesday practice. "To me, it's a race to four. Everybody says it's the best-of-seven, but in the race for four, the quicker you get there, the better the chance to be successful."
The Avalanche have been overwhelmed, and that probably would have been the case even if Colorado's injury woes hadn't continued.
Ryan Smyth didn't play in Detroit's 4-3 Game 3 win, and Paul Stastny was done for the night after suffering a knee injury in the first period. Avalanche coach Joel Quenneville said Wednesday that Stastny should be considered "probably unlikely" for the rest of the series and Smyth was "doubtful" for Game 4. And those injuries came just as Peter Forsberg and Scott Hannan were returning to the Colorado lineup.
For the Wings, the most significant development in the series is the further emergence of Johan Franzen as an elite player, a power forward and effective counterpunch and complement to magical linemates Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg. The big Swede has six goals in the first three games, and a couple of them have been awe-inspiring.
In Game 3, with Datsyuk scoring two goals and Zetterberg one, they were allowed to zip the puck around and back and forth until Jose Theodore -- who had struggled in the first two games, in part because of the flu -- could have been excused for feeling dizzy and nauseated again, perhaps even a little angry.
"They're elite players coming into the prime of their careers," Babcock said of Datsyuk and Zetterberg. "They have great will and determination. And that, to me, is what separates you from being a regular player to being a star, is how much drive you have, and how much heart and how much passion you have. They're elite in that way. I thought they were magic throughout the game, but even better in the third period. Every time something went wrong, they went out and turned the game in the right direction for us."
Amid all the talk about the possible rekindling of the Avalanche-Red Wings rivalry (and that talk, at least so far, has proved to be a silly reach), perhaps the most overlooked aspect of all has been that Colorado not only is overmatched against this specific Detroit team but also doesn't match up well.
Going into the series, it wasn't entirely out of line to say Detroit's 4-0 edge over the Avalanche in the regular season was irrelevant, given that Joe Sakic didn't play in any of the games, Stastny and Smyth were out for two, and Colorado made significant changes at the trading deadline. Yet, now that it has been nearly 14 months since Colorado posted a victory of any kind over the Red Wings (a 4-3 overtime victory in Detroit on March 4 of last season), the cumulative evidence can't be ignored.
More so than with most teams, the Avalanche's offense tends to comes almost exclusively from down low, from cycling, from Smyth's and Andrew Brunette's work at the net, from Stastny's setups, from Sakic's stealthy shots, from Milan Hejduk's magical hands. Colorado has tended to have trouble getting the puck up ice and deep against anyone; against the Red Wings, the weakness becomes more pronounced. With Detroit so adroitly maintaining possession and moving it up ice (this is a team that makes tic-tac-toe passing an art from end to end), Colorado hasn't had much of a chance.
"They have a great hockey team," Sakic said. "They deserve to be up 3-0, the way the series has gone. They've outskated us, outworked us."
Quenneville said he was satisfied with his team's effort in Game 3 but not with the execution that left Theodore defenseless at least a couple of times. "We can't give up the high-quality, cross-ice pass, empty-net one-timers that they're pretty good at," he said.
So now it comes down to Colorado looking for a miracle. The Red Wings' Game 4 challenge comes down to whether they can maintain the hunger to make this a sweep or whether they'll cruise through Thursday night with a diminished drive, allowing the Avalanche to save some face and win one at home before Colorado management begins grappling with the postmortem and what-next issues facing the franchise.
(Do the Avalanche re-sign Theodore, Adam Foote or Forsberg? Will Sakic retire or sign another one-year deal as he continues taking it a season at a time at this stage of his career?)
"For myself, it's all about pride," Theodore said after practice Wednesday. "You go out there and you just want to make sure you fight and be able to look at yourself in the mirror and really say, 'I left everything out there.' I think for a lot of guys, that's what we did [in Game 3]."
Foote rejoined the Avalanche after spending nearly three full seasons with Columbus, playing the Red Wings 31 times a season (or maybe it only seems like that) in the post-lockout scheduling format.
"I knew how they played," Foote said. "I knew how they like to get to the middle of the ice, and they're entering pretty easily right now. We have to play better in the middle of the ice and not let them have it."
That's easier said than done.
Terry Frei is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He is the author of the just-released "'77" and "Third Down and a War to Go."
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