The 2002 Colorado Avalanche Push The Limits

The Colorado Avalanche were a franchise used to success—big success—when the 2001-02 season began. They had won the Stanley Cup the previous year, their second championship in six seasons, and there were three trips to the conference finals mixed in. 2002 didn’t bring another title. In fact, it marked the end of the era. But it came with a lot of excitement, highlighted by dramatic Game 7 wins and clutch performances. Let’s look back on the 2002 Colorado Avalanche, the team that played three consecutive seven-game series.

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Colorado was a defense-oriented team. Patrick Roy was one the game’s top goalies and only allowed 1.94 goals per game in the regular season. The offense was hindered by the loss of center Peter Forsberg for most of the regular season. Forsberg, whose aggressive style led to a number of injuries, had taken a leave of absence early in the year to recover from some of those injuries—most notably a ruptured spleen that had taken place the previous May. Without Forsberg, Joe Sakic had to carry the offensive burden mostly by himself.

The Avalanche were slow out of the gate, beginning the season 7-10-1 and they didn’t clear .500 for good until the end of November. But December was a strong month, including a 9-2-3 run to close the calendar year and a six-game win streak in January helped set the team on its way to a Northwest Division title.

They finished the season with 99 points, the same as Pacific Division winner San Jose. But because Colorado’s formula to get there had 45 wins, while San Jose’s only had 44, the Avalanche won the tiebreaker for the #2 seed. It would prove to be significant.

Before they could worry about San Jose though, Colorado would have to match up with the Los Angeles Kings in the first round. The Kings were a similar team to the Avs—built mostly on defense and their goaltender Felix Potvin. They had some talented offensive people—center Jason Allison was a distributor, while wings Adam Deadmarsh and Ziggy Palffy were the scorers, but Los Angeles was still a team that was better served by a low-scoring game. In other words, they were the kind of team that causes a favorite fits in the playoffs.

Colorado had one big hole card to play—Forsberg was healthy again and ready to compete in the postseason. In the first game of the Los Angeles series the center had two assists and helped Colorado overcome a pair of goals by Palffy in a 4-3 win. Forsberg had two more assists in Game 2, and added a goal for good measure. Colorado won 5-3 and looked in control. And even though they couldn’t contain Palffy—who scored two more in Game 3, as the Kings won at home—Roy pitched a 1-0 shutout in Game 4, saving 32 shots and putting the Avs to the brink of advancing.

The return home to Game 5 didn’t turn out the way Colorado wanted. Roy was locked in again, but Potvin was as well, and this time the Kings came out on top, with a 1-0 overtime win. Los Angeles then won Game 6 on their home ice 3-1 and put the favorite in a dreaded spot—Game 7 in a series that had developed, as expected, into one of low-scoring battles where one break could decide a game.

Nothing matches a great goaltender with a championship pedigree though, and Roy answered the bell in Game 7. Los Angeles fired 23 shots at him. All 23 were turned away, and Potvin wasn’t up to the task of matching him. A 4-0 win helped the city of Denver exhale and get ready for San Jose.

The Sharks would present a contrast in styles. Their offense ranked 4th in the league, with Teemu Selanne and Scott Thornton packing the goal-scoring punch from opposite wings of the ice. Defensively they were good, with goalie Evgeni Nabogov, but they weren’t elite-level.

It was Roy was far from elite level in Game 1 though, beaten twice by Selanne, five times overall and San Jose tacked on an empty-net score for a 6-3 win. Colorado came barreling back with a vengeance two days later. Rob Blake scored two goals, leading an attack that saw seven players score and the Avs won 8-2. Blake proved to be having one of those playoff spurts where he caught lightning in a bottle at the right time. In the two games at San Jose he scored three more times, dished one assist and the team split a pair. After Roy played poorly in a 6-4 loss in Game 3, the defense kept the veteran goalie protected in Game 4, limiting the Sharks to 20 shots and winning 4-1.

San Jose was undeterred and after a 5-3 win in Game 5 it seemed apparent they had Roy’s number. The Sharks had now scored twenty goals in five games and gone scored at least five times in their three wins. It was the style of play they wanted and the reason they could close at home in Game 6.

When great players are pushed to a wall they respond and Roy was no different. The defense took good care of him in Game 6, but the goalie was outstanding as well, saving 21 of 22 shots and pulling out a 2-1 win. That tiebreaker settling the two teams’ seeding placement ensured this decisive game would be in Denver.

For the second straight time in a Game 7, Roy tossed a shutout. He saved all 27 shots. The goalie might not have had his best series—or even his best postseason, but in three elimination games (including Game 6 against San Jose) he’d only given up one goal. And there was no room for error in this game, as Colorado won 1-0. In the series’ final two games they’d finally gotten San Jose into a low-scoring battle and the Avalanche won both times.

Detroit was the foe in the Western Conference finals. This was hockey’s hottest rivalry at the time and this series is deserving of an article unto itself. For our purposes here, we’ll just note that it again went seven games. This time Roy didn’t have it and Detroit won a 7-0 rout in the finale.

The 2002 playoff run proved to be the last gasp of the good times in Colorado hockey. They haven’t made the conference finals since, haven’t won a playoff series since 2008 and have missed the postseason entirely three of the last four years. But they gave the fans a lot of thrills in the 2002 run that marked the end of an era.