1996 Colorado Avalanche: Beginner’s Luck Turns Into A Cup

The 1996 Colorado Avalanche didn’t take long to take make themselves comfortable in their new home. In the first season after relocating from Quebec and changing their name from the Nordiques to the Avalanche, Colorado not only won a Stanley Cup, but upended one of the NHL’s all-time great regular season teams in the process.

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Colorado opened the season with what would prove to be a foreshadowing win, 2-1 win over the Detroit Red Wings. Colorado got 30 saves from goalie Stephane Frist, who would split time with Patrick Roy through the season.

The Avalanche went on to an eight-game winning streak to give them some early breathing room in the Western Conference playoff race. It was needed, as the team went through a rough stretch starting in late November and stretching well into December, losing seven of ten.

They were still 18-11-4 at that point, and were able to settle into consistent, steady hockey before a five-game win streak in late February helped open things up again and they won four in a row just prior to the end of the regular season. Colorado finished the season at 47-25-10 and was the #2 seed in the West.

Joe Sakic was the center and the heart of the offense, scoring 51 goals and distributing 69 assists. There was little dropoff when the second line came on the ice, as Peter Forsberg may not have been the scorer Sakic was, but he was an even better assists man. Veteran Claude Lemieux was on one wing while Valeri Kamensky was on the opposite side, giving the centers ample opportunity to find someone who could light the lamp.

Coached by Marc Crawford, the Avalanche’s potent offense was second in the NHL in goals scored, with Roy having emerged ahead of Frist for the goaltending job in the playoffs, Colorado was eighth in goals allowed.

Vancouver was the opponent in the first round and the Canucks were just two years removed from the Stanley Cup Finals, when they dropped a seven-game heartbreaker to the New York Rangers.

Forsberg scored twice and passed for two assists to lead the way to a 5-2 win in the opener. But Roy and the defense failed two nights later, as Vancouver evened the series in a 5-4 game. The goalie had a comeback night on Saturday in Vancouver, stopping all 28 shots and keying a 4-0 win. But the Canucks bounced right back with a 4-3 win.

On Thursday night back in Denver one of the biggest games of the Cup run would take place. Vancouver’s Trevor Linden, who’d delivered clutch performance in ’94 Finals, hit for the hat trick. But Sakic answered with a hat trick of his own in a great battle of leaders. The game went to overtime and Colorado won it 5-4. The Avalanche were able to close it out on the road in Game 6, taking a tough 3-2 win and advancing to the second round.

This was something of a bizarre year in the NHL playoffs, because seven of the eight favorites won their opening series. For a league known for its upsets, a chalk bracket seemed almost surreal—even more so when you consider the only “underdog” to win was 5th-seeded St. Louis. It set up Colorado for what would be another tough fight, as they squared off with the third-seeded Chicago Blackhawks.

The battles with Vancouver were just a foretaste of what was ahead in this series. Chicago came to Denver and stole Game 1 in overtime, taking a 3-2 win. Roy answered back in Game 2, saving 30 shots and keying a 5-1 win. The series went to the Windy City for Games 3 & 4 and both went to overtime. After losing 4-3, Colorado won a desperation fight in the fourth game only by launching 57 shots on Blackhawk goalie Ed Belfour and finally escaping 3-2.

Kamensky had a two-goal game back in Denver to lead a 4-1 win and putting Colorado within a game of advancing. Chicago didn’t go quietly on their home ice in Game 6. But again Kamensky scored twice. Again the Colorado offense assaulted Belfour, this time winning shots 45-34. And again it went to overtime, with the Avalanche winning 4-3. The conference finals and the Detroit Red Wings were next.

Since losing that first game of the regular season to Colorado, Detroit had rolled on to a dominating regular season, easily the best in the NHL and Scotty Bowman’s team was a heavy favorite to win the Stanley Cup. Sergei Federov was one of the best players in hockey and the leader of a group of imports known as “The Russian Five” on the Wings.

But Detroit had looked less than invincible in the playoffs, taking six games to finish Winnipeg in the first round and needing all seven games to get rid of pesky St. Louis in the conference semis. Now they stood in the way of Colorado reaching the Finals in their first year in Denver—in fact, for the first time in the history of the organization. Quebec had only made it even this far one time, back in 1985 and never reached the Finals.

It was a Saturday in Detroit, May 19, that the series began in what was now a familiar type of game to Colorado—they went to overtime, and when Mike Keane scored early in OT, the Avalanche had drawn first blood, 3-2.

Roy shut down the home team in Game 2, stopping all 35 Detroit shots and Colorado had won the first two games on the road. The goalie was slowly, but surely, playing his best hockey when it mattered most. During the regular season, Roy’s save percentage was 90.9%. It jumped over 92% in the postseason and his most spectacular moments were in the postseason’s final two rounds when championships were at stake.

Roy still wasn’t perfect, and Detroit showed that all too vividly in Game 3, with Federov’s four assists setting up a 6-4 win for Detroit. But Roy bounced right back, saving 29 of 31 shots in Game 4 and winning a good 4-2 game where Colorado held the lead most of the way, but it was enough to keep you on the edge of your seat throughout.

With their back to the wall at home, Detroit responded with a 5-2 win. A bitter battle ensued in Game 6. Lemieux drew a five-minute penalty on Red Wing forward Kris Draper, bashing him into the boards and causing a facial injury that kept Draper out into the middle of next year and meant bad blood flowed between these two teams in the seasons still to come.

Sakic scored two goals and handed out an assist, and made sure tonight belonged to Colorado. In front of the home fans, in their first year in town, they posted a 4-1 win to win the West.

The playoffs in the Eastern Conference may have been chalk in the first round, but they turned upside down after that. 4th-seeded Florida knocked off favorite Philadelphia in six games and then won an excellent seven-game series over the Pittsburgh Penguins to capture the conference title. Colorado would enter the Finals as the favorite with home-ice advantage.

On June 4 the puck dropped and Roy was ready. Even though Florida got the first goal, it was their last of the night and Colorado scored thrice in the second period to roll to a 3-1 win. Two nights later it was no contest, as the Avalanche lived up their name, with the entire lineup getting in on the act in an 8-1 devastation.

Roy was in command now and he stopped 32 shots in Game 3 to lead the way to a 3-2 win. Game 4 was an epic battle which, had it taken place later in a more closely contested Finals, would have a bigger place in Stanley Cup lore. The game went to triple overtime and no one had scored. It wasn’t for lack of attempts. Roy faced 63 shots and stopped them all. And when Uwe Krupp scored for Colorado, they were the champs.

It hardly seemed fair—while some hockey-starved cities waited years for a championship, Denver had a little beginner’s luck with the 1996 Colorado Avalanche.  But no one in the Rockies was complaining.