Avalanche captain's scoring spree halted by stingy New Jersey defense.
© St. Petersburg Times,
published June 7, 2001
Joe Sakic used his speed, cunning and deadly shot to slice through the Devils in the first game of the Stanley Cup final, continuing a performance that seemed destined to end in another championship for the Avalanche and another Conn Smythe Trophy for Sakic as the most valuable player in the post-season.
Sakic's skill symbolized his club's versatile offensive weaponry and the clash of styles between the go-go Avalanche and the bigger, defense-minded Devils. Sakic, the Avalanche captain, dipped and dashed through the Devils early in the series, confounding even New Jersey star defenseman Scott Stevens.
But since Game 1, the Devils have fortified their defense and changed their matchup on Sakic -- the leader in playoff goals and the likely regular-season MVP. As a result, Colorado faces elimination tonight in Game 6 at New Jersey.
Sakic had three goals and an assist in the first 65 minutes of this series but does not have a goal in 235 minutes since. His imaginative wings -- Milan Hejduk and Alex Tanguay -- also failed to make an impact as the Avalanche's 2-1 series lead slipped away.
Sakic's slide is made all the more profound by the Devils' offensive revival. Patrik Elias, Petr Sykora, Alexander Mogilny and Scott Gomez have unearthed their scoring touch after going silent the first three games.
"They're doing a great job on Joe," said Tanguay, who has one goal in the past 13 games. "We see that it's up to us to play better -- me and Milan -- because they do a great job of closing down Joe."
Devils coach Larry Robinson was stubborn early in the series, refusing to match center Bobby Holik, a defensive stopper who routinely shuts down players such as Mario Lemieux and Mats Sundin, on Sakic. Robinson was content to use his top offensive line -- Elias, Sykora and Jason Arnott -- on Sakic, a heavy defensive responsibility.
But when Arnott suffered an apparent concussion in Game 4, Robinson moved Holik to that spot and used him, along with Stevens, to shadow Sakic on every shift, making line changes to ensure the matchup. Sakic's line has done nothing at even strength since.
"Obviously they wanted to put (Holik) against our line," Sakic said. "It was pretty easy for them once they got a 2-1 lead (in Game 5). They like to play their trap and really bottle you up. They wouldn't be nearly as effective if we had the lead."
That may be true, but the primary responsibility to provide that lead falls to Sakic, especially with center Peter Forsberg done for the season after spleen surgery May 10. Sakic's three-game slump is his longest of the playoffs, and Hejduk, an established 40-goal scorer, has one goal in the past nine games.
Colorado outscored New Jersey 9-3 in the first three games but has been outscored 7-3 since. Rather than counter Robinson's moves, Avalanche coach Bob Hartley has preached consistency, refusing to juggle his lineup to free up Sakic.
"With Elias and Sykora, we feel very comfortable going toe-to-toe (with Sakic's line)," Hartley said. "I felt we generated some good scoring chances, and that's the matchup we wanted."
Since Holik joined the Devils' top line, Elias and Sykora have had three goals and six points in two games. Conversely, Robinson resisted convention and kept Gomez and Mogilny on the same line despite prolonged slumps, and the rewards were great.
Gomez snapped a 12-game slide by scoring the tying goal in Game 4 -- which turned the series around -- and assisted on Mogilny's blast to give New Jersey a 2-1 lead late in the first period Monday night, snapping Mogilny's 14-game funk.