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Avalanche on a roll as NHL breaks for All-Star game

January 16, 1997

SAN JOSE, Calif. (AP) _ The Colorado Avalanche continues to roll despite adversity that could easily have spoiled the encore season to its first Stanley Cup.

As the NHL heads into its all-star break this weekend, is there a more surprising story than the Avalanche, which certainly has overachieved in the face of numerous injuries to key personnel?

Despite missing several regulars _ including top three centers _ for a substantial part of the first half of the season, the Avalanche has the league’s best record at 27-10-8 for 62 points. Colorado is on an 8-0-3 roll heading into the break.

Goaltender Patrick Roy, the starter for the Western Conference in Saturday’s All-Star game at San Jose Arena, has been no small part of Colorado’s success. And then there is a matter of depth.

``We are winning games with key people out,″ says forward Mike Keane. ``The kids are doing a good job for us. We need fresh blood in the lineup and the guys are getting the job done.″

Center Mike Ricci, who had missed 11 games earlier this season because of a dislocated shoulder, is the latest of the Avalanche’s injured players. e’s out with a fractured hand, joining Joe Sakic (lacerated calf) and Peter Forsberg, (bruised thigh), among others, on the sidelines.

Sakic, the Avalanche captain and leading scorer at the time of his injury, was the fans’ choice to start at center for the Western Conference. Forsberg, the team’s No. 2 scorer, was also ticketed for an All-Star berth.

``This team has played very good hockey and has done a very good job of staying on top of the league with other teams that have been healthy,″ said forward Claude Lemieux, who missed most of the first half of the season with a torn abdominal muscle. ``Hopefully, we will get everybody back after the All-Star game.″

As it is, the Avalanche will still have two starters in the Western Conference lineup with Roy in goal and Sandis Ozolinsh at one of the defensive positions. Ozolinsh will team with Chicago’s Chris Chelios on the backline. Brett Hull of St. Louis is the starting right wing and Anaheim’s Paul Kariya the starting left wing for the West.

John Vanbiesbrouck of the Florida Panthers, who faced Roy in last season’s Stanley Cup finals, will start in goal for the Eastern Conference. Boston’s Ray Bourque and Brian Leetch of the New York Rangers are the starters on defense while the forward line consists of the New York Rangers’ Wayne Gretzky at center and Pittsburgh’s Jaromir Jagr and Tampa Bay’s Dino Ciccarelli on the wings.

While every team must have at least one player participate. It’s usually those teams with strong first-half performances that generally have strong representation.

The Philadelphia Flyers, who at one point were unbeaten in 17 straight games, will have four players in the Eastern Conference lineup. Pittsburgh, on an 13-game unbeaten streak before the break, will have three. So will the Rangers, one of the NHL’s hottest teams after a slow start.

In addition to those named for Colorado in the West, Detroit will have four players represented while Dallas will have three. The Stars and Red Wings have the 1-2 records in the Central Division.

As usual, there is always some controversy or two about the choices.

``I think a lot of this voting is about being a `big name,′ ″ says Denis Potvin, Hall of Fame defenseman who is now a broadcaster on the Panthers’ games. ``Ray Bourque is a good example. He’s been injured most of the year, yet he ends up number one in balloting (among Eastern Conference defensemen).″

Vanbiesbrouck was voted to the team despite going through a rough period after a fast start.

``In John Vanbiesbrouck’s case, he’s had a tough time the last couple of weeks, but that certainly doesn’t have any bearing on why he outvoted everybody by almost 2-1,″ Potvin said. ``He really made a name for himself in the playoffs last year.″

Vanbiesbrouck was the overall leading leader in the Eastern Conference with 200,457 votes. New Jersey’s Martin Brodeur was second among goalies with 95,131 votes.

The Rangers’ Mike Richter said he was disappointed at not being named to the eastern team as a reserve, and he had a right to be. Richter was the MVP in the World Cup of Hockey Tournament, the NHL’s player of the month for December, and had a 16-game unbeaten streak at one point.

Certainly a case could be made for Richter, but it’s hard to fault the choices ahead of him. Buffalo’s Dominik Hasek, who has five shutouts, and Brodeur are having outstanding seasons.

The Eastern Conference has won the last two games _ including last year’s 5-4 victory in Boston. The East has an 18-7 edge since the league changed formats in the 1969 game.

This year’s game is a restart for San Jose, whose 1995 game canceled by the owners’ lockout. The all-star weekend will start with a skills competition and ``Heroes of Hockey″ oldtimers game tonight, and continue with Saturday night’s All-Star game.

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