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Five “What IF…” Questions from Avs History

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Ever torture yourself with “what if” questions about your life? Oh, I do all the time. Some questions are asked with regret, some with thanks and appreciation.

What if I hadn’t tried to squat that one more rep at a gym in college, with no spotter, then hurt my back? Well, I wouldn’t be sitting here today, having to take 20-30 mg of steroids a day until likely getting a second back surgery. (The steroids take away the pain, but they sure make me a lot more jumpy. Feels like I have a thousand gallons of Jolt Cola in me at all times).

What if I’d taken a job offer in Dallas I had, in 1999 to go be the Stars beat writer for a major paper? Well, I never would have married my wife and had a son with her. It works both ways.

A friend of mine in the business suggested I do a “What If” column on certain key moments in Avalanche history. And, it’s not a bad idea. So, here goes:

1. WHAT IF REFEREE PAUL STEWART DOESN’T GIVE THE AVS A 5-ON-3 IN GAME 5 OF THE AVS’ FIRST-ROUND SERIES WITH VANCOUVER IN 1996?

The background: The Vancouver Canucks held a 4-3 lead late in the third period of Game 5 against the Avalanche at McNichols Sports Arena, after Trevor Linden scored his third goal of the game against Patrick Roy. A victory for the Canucks, and they would head back to Vancouver up 3-2 in the first-round series.

But then, just 35 seconds apart, referee Paul Stewart – a one-time Quebec Nordique – whistled two penalties on the Canucks – an interference call on Mike Ridley and a tripping call on Dana Murzyn – giving the Avs a 5-on-3 for 1:25.

With only 11 seconds left on the first penalty, to Ridley, Joe Sakic beat Canucks goalie Corey Hirsch with a shot to tie it. Sakic went on to win the game 51 seconds into overtime, and the Avs grabbed the 3-2 series lead and won a nail-biting Game 6 in Vancouver. They would go on to win the Stanley Cup.

My take on what would have happened otherwise: This is a tough one. Very tough. People forget, that Canucks team was very good, just two years removed from going to a Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Finals with the Rangers. This was a Canucks team that had to play the series without an injured Pavel Bure, too (which could be its own “What if” segment).

The Avs really had their hands full with the Canucks. Don’t forget, too, this was an Avs team that had a lot of pressure on it. They were the favorites to win, but they were a franchise that – at that time – had a history of blowing it in the playoffs. Joe Sakic, at the time, had a reputation for not being a clutch player. Patrick Roy still had skeptics saying he was on the downside, that he wasn’t Mr. Clutch anymore.

Those calls by Stewart helped change all that. No question, the Avs got a break, especially on that second call, the tripping minor on Murzyn. I have a feeling, though, that the Avs would have found a way to still win that series without the calls. I wouldn’t have bet the mortgage on that, though. We’ll never know, of course. But enough weird stuff happened in that series to where I think some other kind of miracle for the Avs would have happened. Regardless, the Avs should send Paul Stewart a Christmas card every year.

Here are highlights from that game, 23 years ago:

 

2. WHAT IF MARIO TREMBLAY HAD PULLED PATRICK ROY EARLIER THAN HE DID?

The background: I don’t need to go into great detail on this probably, but just a refresher: Patrick Roy was so incensed at being left in a blowout, Dec. 2, 1995, game at home against Detroit that he stomped past Tremblay and told Montreal Canadiens team president Ronald Corey that he would never play for the Habs again. And, he didn’t.

Four days later, he was traded to the Avalanche, and we all know what Roy did for the team after that.

My take on what would have happened: I think Roy still would have been traded at some point, because he and Tremblay just weren’t getting along and there was seemingly growing animosity from Roy toward the Canadiens anyway, over questions about his ability, whether he still had it, etc. etc. There was a poll in a Montreal newspaper prior to that, where more fans than not said he should be traded, and I know that really ticked Roy off.

And, as was revealed later, in a book by Roy’s dad, Michel, about his son: the Avs and Canadiens supposedly had already been talking trade involving Roy anyway. It was supposed to be Owen Nolan for Roy, and maybe another piece or two. But, supposedly, when Habs GM Serge Savard was fired early into the season, the trade was off. It took the blowup with Tremblay to force a new trade.

I know that Avs GM Pierre Lacroix really wanted Roy bad, and I think he would have kept trying to pry him loose all year. But, obviously, he was handed a gift from Tremblay. He should be on the Avs’ permanent Christmas card list, too.

Here’s a great piece on that famous night:

 

3. WHAT IF SHAYNE CORSON HAD SCORED IN THE FIRST OVERTIME OF GAME 7, BLUES-RED WINGS 1996 PLAYOFFS?

The background: It was Game 7 of a second-round series between the Detroit Red Wings and the St. Louis Blues. The winner would have a date in the next round, the conference finals, against the Colorado Avalanche.

The game was at Joe Louis Arena and, while the Red Wings were dominating play territorially, they just couldn’t finish the Blues off. This was a Blues team with Wayne Gretzky and Brett Hull and a lot of other veterans, including a player named Shayne Corson. In the first overtime, Corson stole a puck from Vladimir Konstantinov and came in on a breakaway against Wings goalie Chris Osgood. Corson was known as a clutch player, and here was the series, on his stick.

But Osgood made a great save. The game would continue into a second overtime, when Steve Yzerman won it with an amazing, big slap shot past Jon Casey. The Red Wings would host the Avs in the next round, and it would become one of the most famous series in hockey history, leading to one of the greatest rivalries in all of pro sports history.

My take on what would have happened otherwise: We probably never would have gotten the great Avs-Wings rivalry. Not to the extent it became anyway. The Avs and Wings probably would have clashed in later playoff rounds, being two great teams in the same conference, but that 1996 series wouldn’t have happened.

I distinctly remember watching this game from my little apartment in Arvada, a first-year Avs beat writer, on my non-HD console TV. I knew I’d either be on a plane to Detroit in a day or two, or staying at home for a Blues-Avs Western final in which the Avs would have home-ice. I definitely remember Corson coming in on Osgood and thinking, “That’s it, I get to stay home a few more days.” But, no. Osgood made a great pad save.

Here are the highlights from that game. The Corson breakaway is at about the 4:10 mark:

 

4. WHAT IF ANDY VAN HELLEMOND HAD GIVEN JEREMY ROENICK A PENALTY SHOT IN 1996 PLAYOFFS?

The background: As you can see here, there were a lot of great “What if” questions from that first Avs season. There were just so many amazing little coincidences and rare occurrences that it makes for fun revisionist history speculation.

In overtime of Game 4 of the Avs’ second-round series against the Chicago Blackhawks, Jeremy Roenick had a breakaway on Patrick Roy but was completely, blatantly tripped from behind by Sandis Ozolinsh. Amazingly, referee Andy Van Hellemond swallowed his whistle. There was no call! Roy did face a shot from Roenick on the play still, and saved it. The Avs would go on to win in double overtime, on a Joe Sakic goal, to tie the series 2-2. They would win the series in six games.

The no-call by Van Hellemond may have partially come abound because, just a year earlier when the Avs were the Nordiques and they were in a playoff series with the Rangers, he disallowed what should have been a Sakic goal that would have given Quebec a 3-0 lead in a game the Nords needed to tie the series 2-2. Instead, the goal was disallowed because Van Hellemond blew a play dead over a Ranger being down on the ice (sound familiar nowadays?) and the Rangers went on to win 3-2. Van Hellemond was later fined by the NHL for getting the call wrong. So, Van Hellemond might have been thinking “I owe these guys a favor here” with the non-call on Ozolinsh.

My take on what would have happened otherwise: Hmm, boy, I really don’t think the Avs come back from a 3-1 deficit to beat that Blackhawks team. I think that would have been it for the Avs there.

The Blackhawks would still have had to play two of the next three in Denver, but I just think the Avs would have tightened up too much to be able to win that series. (Let’s not forget the big break the Avs got in that rubber Game 5 too: Ed Belfour and Murray Craven both couldn’t play, allegedly over getting food poisoning from the lyonnaise potatoes the night before at Morton’s in Denver). The Avs won that Game 5 with ease against backup Jeff Hackett.

Probably the man who most should be on the Avs’ Christmas card list forever is Andy Van Hellemond.

Some video of that whole thing:

 

5. WHAT IF ROB BLAKE HADN’T CHARGED MARIAN GABORIK IN 2003?

The Avalanche, I thought, had ’em. When Joe Sakic scored with 6:45 left in the third period of Game 7 of the Avs’ first-round playoff series with the heavy underdog Minnesota Wild, the Avs had a 2-1 lead, with Patrick Roy playing great in goal. The Wild, which had extended the series to seven games after being down 3-1, would have had their nice little pretend Cinderella moment and bow out.

Then, for some bizarre reason, Avalanche defenseman Rob Blake decided to freight train Wild forward Marian Gaborik in the Avs’ zone. It was just a nothing kind of play, with Gaborik barely even playing the puck, but Blake took off in a veritable sprint and ran Gaborik over. Blake was penalized for charging with 5:03 left.

On the power play, Gaborik himself tied the game 2-2 with 4:28 left.

Andrew Brunette scored the winner in overtime for Minnesota, in what would be the final play of Roy’s illustrious career.

I couldn’t find video of the Blake penalty on Gaborik, but here’s the grisly overtime of that game.

My take on what would have happened otherwise: Avs win that game otherwise. That Blake penalty was a colossal loss of judgment. To this day, I can’t understand why he did that.

I’ll do another one of these at some point. Happy Thanksgiving.

 

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Adrian Dater - Kiss and Larry Bird fan. Writer with @Gambling and @Bookies. Previously Denver Post, SI, Bleacher Report to name just a few.

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Joel Stefaniak
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Joel Stefaniak

Not sure about the last one against the wild. Avs basically did the same thing again in 2014. Certainly think they could have beat Buffalo in 99’ and Carolina in 02.’ Definitely should have at least one more cup.

david
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david

That was a cool piece. Thanks AD.

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