STANLEY CUP FINALS: COLORADO AVALANCHE vs. FLORIDA PANTHERS
* Regular season records: Colorado, 47-25-10, second in West; Florida 41-31-10, fourth in East.
* Leading scorers: Colorado--Joe Sakic, 51-69--120; Florida--Scott Mellanby 32-38--70.
* Leading playoff scorers: Colorado--Sakic, 17-12--29; Florida--Dave Lowry, 10-6--16.
* Team goals-against averages: Colorado--2.89, ninth; Florida--2.82, sixth.
* Playoff goals-against averages: Colorado--2.40, fifth; Florida--2.27, second.
* Power play: Colorado--21.3%, second; Florida--17.3%, 16th.
* Playoff power play: Colorado--21.3%, fifth; Florida--12.9%, 12th.
* Penalty killing: Colorado--83.8%, seventh; Florida--83%, ninth.
* Playoff penalty killing: Colorado--84.4%, seventh; Florida--81.4%, 10th.
* How they advanced: Colorado--defeated Vancouver, 4-2; defeated Chicago, 4-2; defeated Detroit, 4-2. Florida--defeated Boston, 4-1; defeated Philadelphia, 4-2; defeated Pittsburgh, 4-3.
* Esoteric facts: Colorado center Sakic has had points in 17 of 18 games. . . . Florida goalie John Vanbiesbrouck made his NHL debut at Denver’s McNichols Arena against the Colorado Rockies on Dec. 5, 1981 at 18. He helped the New York Rangers to a 2-1 victory. . . . The Avalanche had a 1-0-1 edge in the season series. . . . No matter who wins, it will be the first Cup triumph by a rookie coach since 1986, when Jean Perron won with the Montreal Canadiens.
* Keys: The Avalanche has it all and in impressive quantities: Clutch goaltending, a physical but mobile defense with a scoring threat in Sandis Ozolinsh and a corps of skilled forwards. Patrick Roy (2.42 goals-against average, .906 save percentage) hasn’t lost two consecutive playoff games, a tribute to his resilience.
Colorado is aware that the Panthers stymied Pittsburgh’s Mario Lemieux and Jaromir Jagr in the Eastern finals, but it hasn’t devised a special strategy to counter the Panthers’ checking. “Against a team like that, we can’t get frustrated. We’ve got to stay patient,” Sakic said. “They do a lot of things Detroit does, especially defensively, and we’ve learned how to play against that defense.”
Said Coach Marc Crawford, “We have to be a team that executes very well in all three zones and our execution has been better than it was throughout the year.”
Colorado will have to play the first two games without Claude Lemieux, who was suspended by the NHL for checking Detroit’s Kris Draper from behind in the Western Conference finale. However, the Avalanche won Game 4 against the Red Wings while he served a suspension, moving Mike Ricci up to the right side of Valeri Kamensky and Peter Forsberg without missing a beat. “I wish it was seven games,” Florida center Brian Skrudland said of Lemieux’s ban. “I don’t really care for playing against the guy. There isn’t more of a competitor in the game.”
Unlike the Avalanche, which had five days off after beating the Red Wings, the Panthers had two days’ rest after eliminating the Penguins. But they’re so emotionally high, they feel no fatigue. “I wanted to drop the puck [Monday],” said Skrudland, who will face Sakic or Forsberg. “We’re proud of what we’ve accomplished but we realize we’re only halfway there.”
Vanbiesbrouck (2.15 goals-against average, .937 save percentage) is the key reason they’re here but not the only one. Sakic has more goals, 17, than top Panther scorer Lowry has points, 16, but Florida has gotten timely goals from role players such as Tom Fitzgerald, Bill Lindsay and Stu Barnes. “I’m in heaven right now but we know we have a job to do,” Fitzgerald said. “It doesn’t matter what you’ve done in the past, it’s what you do right now.”
Deep as Florida is, the Avalanche is slightly more skilled up front and on defense. The Penguins also had an edge in skill but didn’t have the tenacity to capitalize on that edge; the Avalanche will. Colorado in six.