Colorado Avalanche: Why Not Us: The 1997-98 Season

In this edition of the “Why Not Us” series we look at Marc Crawford’s last season behind the bench with the Colorado Avalanche.

In the first installment of “Why Not Us” we took a look at the Colorado Avalanche in 1996-97 and their first season as defending Stanley Cup Champions and how the rivalry with the Red Wings impeded the attempts of a repeat championship. The Red Wings followed up their series victory against the Avalanche by sweeping the “Legion of Doom” era of Philadelphia Flyers in the finals and securing the Stanley Cup championship that year.

How would the Avs follow up the disappointment of falling one round short of the finals and more importantly how would they overcome Detroit?

The puck drop for the 1997-98 season occurred on October 1st, 1997. The Avs, in an effort to shake the deflating finale to the prior season, matched up with the fiery Dallas Stars. With all of the pomp and circumstance of getting to open the season at home in front of a rabid fanbase, the fans that night ultimately went home with the most mediocre result in sports, a tie. The Avalanche would follow up the neutral result of opening night with four straight wins and wouldn’t record their first regulation loss until October 17th, an overtime loss against the Calgary Flames.

Much like the previous two seasons, the Colorado Avalanche found their in-season success by stringing together multiple winning streaks throughout the schedule. With Patrick Roy returning in net, and the offense being led once again by Captain Joe Sakic, the Avalanche resumed their regular season identity as a dominant force of passion and talent.

As in years prior the Sakic also had the help of Peter Forsberg, Valeri Kamensky, and Claude Lemieux to provide an offensive barrage of skill and physicality that proved problematic for many opposing teams. Emulating the force of nature of which the team gets its name, the Avalanche slowly churned a record of 26-13-16 by the end of January, only six wins shy of the mark they had in the previous year.

The Colorado Avalanche began the month of February in a very familiar place in the standings and the same winning formula that became the identity of the team in the late 90’s era. The Avs became famous for their high octane physical style coupled with elite-level skill, similarly to the year before injuries became a factor. The ’97-’98 season fell on an Olympic year, so according to the agreement at the time, the league would take a 16-day break to allow the players to participate in the games.

That year Colorado sent 10 players and head coach Marc Crawford to Nagano to play for their respective countries. After all of the national pride, international pageantry, and medal ceremonies of the Nagano Olympic Games, the Avalanche players that were selected returned home to resume their season in the NHL.

The Olympic Avs reconvened with their fellow teammates and were ready to resume their quest for the Cup, all except for one key player. Avalance Captain Joe Sakic suffered a knee injury in the Olympics in team Canada’s game versus Japan and missed 18 games due to the injury which took some of the veteran leadership out of the lineup.

The injuries plagued the Avs during the second half of the season and it really effected to flow of the offense. Eric Lacroix was the only member of the Avalanche to play all 82 regular-season games that year with Stephane Yelle and Sylvain Lefebvre following Lacroix with 81 games apiece.

Even though injuries limited Peter Forsberg to just 72 games, he ended the season with 91 points which landed him in second place in the league for scoring that year. Joe Sakic’s injuries held him to a mere 64 games but he managed to lead the team in goals with 27, just showing the missed opportunities that the injuries provided for the Avs. To add insult to injury the Avalanche hit a 6 game losing streak to begin the month of April with 5 of the 6 games coming on the road.

The Colorado Avalanche ended the regular season on April 18th with a positive result against their newly formed rival Detriot Red Wings. The Avs battled the Wings at home in Denver and ended the season with a 4-3 win over the Wings and ended the season with a 39-26-17 record which ended up earning them a Pacific division title and 2nd place in the Western Conference. Limping to the finish line the Avs were now facing a playoff matchup with the Edmonton Oilers who they faced and defeated last year in a 5 game conference semi-finals.

The Colorado Avalanche were hopeful that familiarity with Edmonton and the quick work they made of them in the ’96-’97 playoffs would provide for easy first-round advancement. But like many foes the Avalanche defeat in the playoffs, Edmonton remembered that stinging loss and came prepared.

Edmonton took a 3-2 win in Game 1 in Denver to try and rob any momentum the Avs were desperately looking to acquire.  Game 2 also took place in Colorado and this time the Avs dominated in the same way they did in the early portion of the season as they defeated the Oilers 5-2,  swinging momentum back in their direction heading into Edmonton for Game 3.

Riding the wave of emotion, Colorado stole the next two games in Edmonton and gained a commanding 3-1 lead heading back home to Colorado, and the Avs felt a repeat of last year’s matchup with the Oilers was imminent.  The Avalanche came home to Denver seeking to advance in the playoffs against the Oilers for the second year in a row.

But the wear and tear and conditioning began to show. Edmonton stole Game 5 in Denver in a 3-1 dominating performance and the Avs were showing the signs of physical fatigue that appeared in the previous season against Detroit. In games 6 and 7, the Avalanche failed to even manage to score one goal in either game, and they got shut out in back to back games to get eliminated by the Oilers

After such a disappointing final month of the season and embarrassing collapse in the playoffs, the Avalanche went into the offseason dejected and hurting. The ’97-’98 season turned out to be the final season for Hall of Famer Jari Kurri, who scored his 600th goal with the Avs in the final season of his 18-year career. Along with this being the final season for Kurri, this would be the last season for the Avalanche in the Pacific Division as they would be moved to the Northwest Division in ’98-’99.

In the offseason, the Avalanche offered head coach Marc Crawford a two-year contract to remain with the team, to which he refused and left the team, making this his final year in Colorado.  The Avalanche would take the offseason to heal, rebuild, and retool the team to try to establish the combination to get through the playoffs. Since their Stanley Cup Championship in ’95-’96, the Avs seemed to be taking steps backward and would need to find a way to right the ship.