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Sakic May Be Returning To Form As Avalanche Begin Title Defense

Associated Press

Colorado won the President’s Trophy for having the best regular-season record in the NHL, and did it without captain Joe Sakic playing his usual key role.

Sakic was the postseason MVP as the Avalanche won the Stanley Cup in 1996, but he has slumped since a serious injury this year.

Sakic returned to the ice Feb. 18, but scored only seven goals in the 25 games since then. He thought he regained his offensive touch with a hat trick March 14 against Pittsburgh, then managed only two goals in the last 13 games.

A year ago, he finished third in the NHL in points with 120, then scored 18 goals in the playoffs and set a Stanley Cup record with six game-winning goals, earning him the MVP trophy for the playoffs.

His troubles began Jan. 4 when his left calf was sliced by the skate of Philadelphia’s Dale Hawerchuk, and he required emergency surgery.

“Before the injury, things were going pretty well,” Sakic said Tuesday. “After the injury, it went downhill. When I came back, the doctors told me it would be six weeks before I was fully healthy, and I’m at that point. The last few games it’s felt pretty good.

“Conditioning was a problem at first, because I wasn’t on the leg for a while. I needed to get the strength back in the leg, as well as my quickness and lateral skating.”

Colorado will play host to Chicago as the playoffs start tonight with four Western Conference games.

Elsewhere, St. Louis is at Detroit, Edmonton at Dallas and Phoenix at Anaheim.

Eastern Conference action starts Thursday night with Ottawa at Buffalo, Montreal at New Jersey, Pittsburgh at Philadelphia, and the New York Rangers at Florida.

In an attempt to shake Sakic and several other Avs forwards out of their offensive doldrums, coach Marc Crawford changed the top two lines for the last two regular-season games and likely will keep them that way for tonight.

Sakic skated with Keith Jones and Claude Lemieux, and Peter Forsberg centered a unit with Valeri Kamensky and Adam Deadmarsh.

“Things weren’t working, and we just needed a little bit of a change, I guess,” Sakic said.

Colorado led the NHL with 107 points, posting a 49-24-9 record, while Chicago finished eighth in the Western Conference with 81 points and a 34-35-13 record.

Logic would seem to dictate that Colorado and New Jersey, No. 1 in the East, would play through to the finals.

But history has not followed form in the 1990s. It’s been eight years since the conference winners met for the championship, when Calgary beat Montreal.

In addition, only three teams in the last 11 years finishing atop the overall standings have won the Stanley Cup in the same year.

“I imagine it’s going to be more difficult” to defend than win it for the first time a year ago, Sakic said. “I thought last year was a difficult road, but this year we won’t catch anybody by surprise.

“Everybody will be gunning for us. But we’re confident with the hockey club we have this year that we have a good chance to repeat. We’re all excited about being here right now. We want to be champions again.”

Dallas swept its season series with Edmonton 4-0, and the Stars are healthy. The Oilers are counting on goalie Curtis Joseph to keep Dallas from dominating the series.

“They’re fast, strong and they’ve got good goaltending,” Stars center Neal Broten said of the Oilers. “We’ve got a big challenge ahead of us.”

The Red Wings were pushed to seven games by the Blues in the second round last spring, and had their hands full with them again this season. If Brett Hull can overcome a nagging groin strain and play at full speed, St. Louis is capable of an upset. Blues goalie Grant Fuhr, who was injured last spring, is healthy.

“In the playoffs, your fate is always in your goaltender’s hands, and Grant loves that challenge,” St. Louis coach Joel Quenneville said.

Anaheim has the higher seed in its series with Phoenix, but the Coyotes won the season series 3-1.

Opening the series on the road won’t be a problem for the Coyotes - their record is better away than at home. Phoenix also might have an edge in goal. Nikolai Khabibulin has been playing well, while Anaheim’s Guy Hebert is bothered by a strained neck.

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