In this edition of Why Not Us we look at the 1998-99 season for the Colorado Avalanche with the first year for Bob Hartley and the last year for the McNichols Sports Arena.
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Welcome to the third installment of the Why Not Us series, where we look back at the seasons in Colorado Avalanche history that didn’t result in Stanley Cup success and the stories and factors behind it. In the last entry, we saw the high powered Avs reclaim their usual regular-season dominance but accumulate injuries to several key players and ultimately lose their matchup with Edmonton who they embarrassed in the ’97-’98 playoffs.
During the offseason, the Avalanche saw their head coach Marc Crawford walk away from a two-year contract extension, leading them to hire new head coach Bob Hartley for the ’98-’99 season. This would be the first year for the Avs in the newly formed Northwest Division in the Western Conference after the addition of the new expansion team the Nashville Predators.
With a new head coach behind the bench, the Colorado Avalanche wanted to desperately reverse their recent playoff misfortunes and reclaim the dominance they have grown accustomed to. On October 10th, 1998 the Avalanche were excited to open the season at home in McNichols Sports Arena in Denver against the visiting Ottawa Senators. With a fresh, rested roster the Avs were looking to try and make a deep run in the playoffs with new rookies in the lineup like Milian Hejduk and Chris Drury.
But as we have learned in this series, home openers haven’t exactly been kind to the burgundy and blue. The Avs battled the surprisingly scrappy Sens’ team to a deflating 4-3 loss at home, to only follow that up by losing the next 3 games of the season. The frustration was building for the Avalanche after leaving Los Angeles on October 18th with a tie against the Kings bringing their record to 0-4-1 heading home to face the “Ghost of Playoffs Past” the Edmonton Oilers.
The Edmonton Oilers rolled into Denver looking to take advantage of a sputtering Colorado Avalanche squad and establish themselves as a force to be reckoned with in the Western Conference. The Avalanche, however, played an angry, desperate game against the Oilers and stole their first win of the year 6-4 at home. The Avs would quickly be humbled again two nights later at home against Phoenix in an embarrassing 5-1 loss to the Coyotes.
Needless to say, the 1998-99 campaign under Bob Hartley began on very shaky ground and they realized they needed to start making some moves to improve their postseason chances. In November of 1998, the Avalanche would trade Kieth Jones to Philadelphia for Shjon Podein to acquire fresh talent to help stabilize their season. The Colorado Avalanche wouldn’t reach the .500 mark until December 5th with a 3-1 win over the St. Louis Blues and then ending the month with a record of 16-17-3.
January of 1999 was a much-needed turning point for the Colorado Avalanche as they found themselves hitting their stride. On January 10th the Avs arrived in Chicago to play a home-and-home series with the Blackhawks to mark the halfway point of the season. Colorado took the first game in Chi-town with a 3-2 overtime win only to turn around two days later and beat them again in Denver 4-1.
Then the Avs start to enjoy that winning feeling and win the next 9 games in a row stringing together an 11 game winning streak. Rocketing up the standings in the West the Avalanche finished the month of February with a record of 30-22-8 with a win against the brand new Nashville Predators on February 27th. On February 28th the front office for the Avalanche picks up a major win by landing a trade with the Calgary Flames in which they acquire Chris Dingman and Theoren Fleury. At the time of the trade, Theoren Fleury had 69 points in 60 games with the Flames adding some scoring to an already potent Colorado forward line.
Editor’s note: That trade broke my heart. It was the first time I saw a favored player, Rene Corbet in this case, get traded.
The Colorado Avalanche found themselves winning the newly formed Northwest division with a 44-28-10 record to finish the season. Ending the regular season on April 18th with a win against the number one seed in the Western Conference, the Dallas Stars, the Avs caught fire at the right time to propel themselves to a number two seed in the conference.
The Avalanche ended up with 3 of the top 10 players in scoring for ’98-’99 with Peter Forsberg, Joe Sakic, and the newly acquired Theoren Fleury. They also saw rookie center, Chris Drury bring the Calder Memorial Trophy home as rookie of the year. With a full head of steam, the Avs began to prepare for their opening-round playoff matchup with the seventh-seeded San Jose Sharks.
Beginning on April 24th in San Jose, the Avalanche faced off with the Sharks in a series that on paper should have tilted towards Colorado in every category. The Sharks entered the playoffs under .500 with a record of 31-33-18 led by Jeff Friesen, Joe Murphy, and Patrick Marleau (Yes, that same Patrick Marleau of the 2019-2020 Penguins).
The Avalanche took the first two games of the series in the “Shark Tank” of San Jose, the Sharks then returned the favor by taking the next two games of the series in Denver. Colorado eventually snapped out of cruise control and then wrapped up Game 5 in Colorado, Game 6 in San Jose, and took the first-round series 4-2. Making forward process in the playoffs was an improvement on last season and a step in the right direction. Because it’s still the ’90s any forward direction in the playoffs would lead them right into the defending Stanley Cup champion Detroit Red Wings.
Both the Colorado Avalanche and the Detroit Red Wings knew before the puck dropped on the season, the road to the Stanley Cup meant going through the other respective organization. On May 7th, the premier heavyweight bout between the league’s fiercest rivals began in Denver Colorado. The Avs and Wings went blow for blow in Game 1 to which the two titans ended up forcing overtime for a decision, to which the visiting Wings ended up taking 3-2.
Two nights later on May the 9th the Wings come back for second helpings and embarrass the Avs in front of their home crowd 4-0. The Avalanche, however, being the courteous house guests visit the Joe Louis Arena in Detroit and pummel the Red Wings 5-3 and then again two nights later by a score of 6-2. Coming back home to Denver on May 16th the Avalanche decided to reverse the outcome of their last home game against the Wings and then beat Detroit mightily, 3-0. Colorado finally would travel to Detroit for Game 6 and show off their scoring prowess one last time by beating the home team 5-2 to end the series and end the hopes of their rivals.
The Colorado Avalanche came into the Western Conference Finals with a rush of emotion and confidence. Going two steps farther than they did last year and overcoming their fierce rival, the Avalanche liked their chances against the Dallas Stars. It would be a fantasy matchup of Patrick Roy vs Ed Belfor, Joe Sakic vs Mike Modano, Claude Lemieux vs Brett Hull.
Colorado had the tall task of starting Game 1 on the road in Dallas on May 22nd, to which they easily answered the call and took the 2-1 win in Reunion Arena. The Stars would even the series in Game 2 however with a 4-2 win in Dallas with 3rd-period goals from Modano and Joe Nieuwendyk. The series shifted to Denver in which the Avs got blanked 3-0 in Game 3 and swinging the momentum to Dallas as they took the series lead.
That angry Avs team showed up in Game 4 at home with early goals by Sakic and Podein, but then taking their foot off the gas pedal the Avs allowed Dallas the even up the score in the 2nd and 3rd period. Not wanting to let the home crowd down, Mr. Calder Chris Drury scored the overtime winner in Denver knotting the series at two games apiece.
They say the brightest flame burns quickest and that seems to be the story of the remainder of the series between the Colorado Avalanche and the Dallas Stars. Colorado headed back to Reunion Arena in Dallas for Game 5 and had a goal-scoring explosion, hanging a touchdown on the Stars by a score of 7-5. Sadly that is where the scoring stopped for the Avs in the series,
Game 6 the Stars right winger Jamie Langenbrunner had a two-goal night as the beat Colorado 4-1 in what would be the last Avalanche game in McNichols Arena. The mighty Stars rinse, washed, and repeated the Avalanche in Game 7 by beating them 4-1 and eliminating them from the postseason. The Dallas Stars ended up claiming Lord Stanley’s Cup that year (that is if you don’t ask a Buffalo fan) by beating the Buffalo Sabres to cap off a very impressive season.
The 1998-99 Colorado Avalanche squad had a very rocky start, to say the least, but showed resiliency and a willingness to improve through acquisitions and offensive cohesion. They ended up being a much better team but ultimately fell victim to a better organization that year.
Out of all of the installments of Why Not Us I have done thus far, this was one of the years I wanted to highlight because I feel this version of the Avalanche slips through the cracks of history because it falls in the middle of the Stanley Cup bookends. Now in the next installment, we will take a look at 1999-2000 Colorado Avalanche and how their brand of hockey translates into the new millennium.