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It Isn’t Time for Avalanche to Slide or for Stars to Fall

The Colorado Avalanche can’t score or win. The Dallas Stars, who have lost five of their last seven games, have almost lost their edge over Detroit for the top Western Conference playoff seeding. Even the Kings, a model of resilience, have trouble scoring goals.

The mighty keep falling in the West, muddling the playoff picture with two weeks left before the real fun begins.

The Avalanche has lost five consecutive games for the first time since moving from Quebec to Denver, and Coach Marc Crawford last Thursday took the dramatic step of benching forward Claude Lemieux against Chicago. Crawford thought Lemieux hadn’t been emotional enough in the previous game, against Detroit, whereas goaltender Patrick Roy had been off the scale at the other end of the emotional spectrum against Detroit.

Roy, who had shoulder injuries the last two seasons, fought Detroit goalie Chris Osgood in a bout that did nothing for his reputation or his team. Had he been hurt, the Avalanche could have scheduled tee times for late April. Roy should be smart enough to know his value is in making saves, not throwing haymakers.

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If he meant to inspire his teammates, he failed. Nothing seems to ignite the Avalanche, which is 8-12 since the Olympics.

“We have to turn it around,” center Joe Sakic said. “We’re letting things slip away. You want momentum on your side going into the playoffs. You want to be playing your best hockey. You don’t want to have any doubts.”

The season is too long and travel too tough for anyone to maintain a peak all season, but this is the time of year when teams must tighten up defensively and get into a playoff mode. Colorado’s defense is disorganized and its offense spotty, and there’s not much time to sort everything out.

The Stars, a Stanley Cup favorite, had lost five of six before defeating Toronto on Monday. The losses were to Toronto, San Jose, Calgary, Edmonton and Vancouver, whose combined record was 136-188-54. Their third-period collapse in a 5-3 loss to the Canucks on Saturday highlighted their inability to cope with adversity and opponents’ speed, problems that hurt them against Edmonton in last spring’s playoffs.

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“I am really concerned,” Coach Ken Hitchcock said after his team had squandered a 3-1 lead at Vancouver. “I think we all are. I think it’s a bad time to give up what we’re giving. . . . You have to have defense being played at the right time and you have to get a contribution from everyone offensively, and we aren’t getting either.”

The Kings’ scoring woes are souring an impressive season. They don’t have the depth of an elite team--does General Manager Dave Taylor regret not snaring a power-play quarterback before the trade deadline?--but they have the size and defense to make an impact in the playoffs. The next few weeks will determine whether their turnaround has been a tease or a legitimate step toward becoming a contender.

DIDN’T YOU USED TO BE . . . ?

Goalie Patrick Lalime created a stir last season with a 14-0-2 debut, matching the best start by an NHL rookie. After the Pittsburgh Penguins decided that Tom Barrasso and Ken Wregget would get the top two jobs this season, Lalime asked for a trade.

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He’s now eating fast-food dinners and playing for Grand Rapids, Mich., of the International Hockey League, hoping for a second chance.

“People say, ‘Hey, what are you doing there?’ ” he said. “I just want to play.”

The Mighty Ducks traded Sean Pronger for the rights to Lalime, a restricted free agent. They told Lalime they will resolve his situation this summer, and he’s willing to do what it takes to get back to the big show.

“You can never be satisfied with what you have done,” said Lalime, who is 9-9-9 with a 2.65 goals-against average and .918 save percentage. “You always try to improve. Last year was a great experience and I thought of it this year when it came the same time. I would watch the Penguins on TV and hope to get something done. . . .

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“I came to Grand Rapids for not a lot of money. I needed to play and I’ve been treated pretty good. I’m excited about next training camp. I want to go and prove I deserve a chance to play in the NHL.”

FIFTY IS NIFTY

Philadelphia left wing John LeClair has scored only eight goals since the Olympics, but with 46, he still has a chance to join Teemu Selanne at the 50-goal level. The only other players likely to reach 50 are Peter Bondra of Washington and Vancouver’s Pavel Bure, who each have 48.

“It is a very realistic goal,” LeClair said. “If it doesn’t happen, it’s not the worst thing in the world.”

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That would be a shame. Fifty-goal seasons have become rare since 1992-93, when 14 players scored 50 or more. Nine did it in 1993-94, eight in 1995-96 and four last season. No one hit the 50 mark in the lockout-shortened 1994-95 season.

WHATTA MESS

Gino Odjick, traded by Vancouver to the New York Islanders, blamed Mark Messier for the Canucks’ many problems. Odjick told the Vancouver Province that a power-hungry Messier undermined Coach Tom Renney and General Manager Pat Quinn, who were fired and replaced by Mike Keenan.

“He didn’t break a sweat for the first 10 games and just waited for Tom Renney and Pat Quinn to get fired,” Odjick said. “He’s responsible for Keenan being here and he’s part of the trades.”

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Messier responded by hinting that teammate Trevor Linden was behind Odjick’s statement, which Linden and Odjick denied.

Either way, the Canucks are likely to trade Bure this summer. Not only did he and Keenan have a screaming match on the bench last week, he’s getting too expensive. When he hit 40 goals, he triggered a clause in his contract stipulating that his salary next season must be the average of the NHL’s five highest-paid players. If he scores 50, he must be paid the average of the three highest salaries. That won’t be known until the conference finals, when Sergei Fedorov’s $12-million bonus clause can kick in.

THAT OLD COLLEGE TRY

Michigan’s 3-2 overtime victory over Boston College in the NCAA hockey final Saturday was splendid. Boston College hit the post twice in overtime, and 6-foot-3 right wing Josh Langfeld--an Ottawa draft pick and one of 10 Wolverine freshmen--won it with a clever shot between the goalie’s leg and the post.

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Michigan goalie Marty Turco, chosen by Dallas in the fourth round of the 1994 draft, had an outstanding tournament but his pro prospects are only fair because he’s small and not technically sound.

SLAP SHOTS

Mighty Duck President Tony Tavares denied reports that he has looked at replacements for General Manager Jack Ferreira. Tavares said everyone in management--himself included--will be evaluated after the season. . . . Wayne Gretzky will be asked to play for Canada in the World Championships. He has never refused, but he has had a long season and might want to rest. . . . The season can’t end soon enough for the New York Rangers’ Brian Leetch, a two-time Norris Trophy winner whose plus-minus rating is a shocking minus-39. . . . For the first time, the Rangers and the Islanders both will miss the playoffs. They deserve it.

Todd Gill, traded by San Jose to St. Louis, said Shark Coach Darryl Sutter “treated us like dogs.” Well, they did roll over and play dead a lot. Said Sutter, “We’re certainly a better team now than at the trading deadline. If guys wanted a nice guy, they’d be in the same position now as they were last year.” . . . Mike Milbury will return as the Islanders’ general manager but not as coach; the same for Florida’s Bryan Murray. Too bad for both teams’ fans.

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The Ducks were smart to extend Selanne’s contract. He’s a valuable asset, exciting to watch and personable. And with Paul Kariya’s future clouded by post-concussion syndrome, locking Selanne up makes sense. . . . The Kings are campaigning for Norris Trophy votes for Rob Blake. He’s a good choice but is at a disadvantage because voters often overlook players west of the Hudson River. Each of the 26 chapters of the Professional Hockey Writers Assn. casts two votes. . . . Phoenix left wing Keith Tkachuk gets his broken rib frozen before each game, and center Jeremy Roenick plays despite a pulled groin muscle, a hernia and smashed nose cartilage. “You can’t sit out this time of year,” Roenick said. “Our destiny is in our hands. We’ve put ourselves in a situation that’s going to make us a better team come playoff time, better mentally and strategically.” Uh, seeing is believing.


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