CHICAGO (AP) _ Joe Sakic started the scoring and, to the delight and relief of the Colorado Avalanche, Joe Sakic finished the scoring. In between, it was one of the wildest hockey games anyone could remember.

Colorado defeated the Chicago Blackhawks 3-2 on Sakic's goal 4:33 into the third overtime Wednesday night, tying the Western Conference semifinal series 2-2 and ending 4 hours, 48 minutes of end-to-end excitement.

``Wow. What a game,'' Chicago's Denis Savard said. ``It would've been a nice one to win.''

After winning the first multiple-overtime game in franchise history, the Avalanche certainly thought so.

``We were desperate,'' Mike Ricci said. ``If we had lost, the series might have been done.''

Instead, it will go at least six games. Game 5 is Saturday night in Denver. The best-of-7 series will then return to Chicago on Monday night.

But Game 4 set quite a standard for entertainment value:

_First, there was intrigue.

Already missing injured wing Tony Amonte, the Blackhawks played without defenseman Chris Chelios _ their captain, best player and regular-season scoring leader. But the Blackhawks wouldn't say why he wasn't playing until the game was a period old and wouldn't give any details about his pulled right groin muscle until after the game ended.

Chelios sustained the injury in Game 3, but the team held out hope that he could play until a pregame pain-killing injection made him too numb to skate effectively. Chelios provided some drama when he came out for warmups before the first overtime; after a few turns around the ice, however, he told coach Craig Hartsburg he couldn't go.

``Anytime Chelios is not on the ice, you always notice it,'' Blackhawks goalie Ed Belfour said. ``He's such a presence, always making big plays, always doing the right thing. And he's such a leader.''

Hartsburg said he didn't know if Chelios could play Saturday night, but the defenseman has a high pain threshold.

_Then, there was controversy.

Midway through the first overtime, Chicago's Jeremy Roenick had a breakaway, but was tripped by Sandis Ozolinsh. Roenick should have been given a penalty shot, but referee Andy Van Hellemond blew the call.

Roenick wasn't available for comment, but Hartsburg said: ``We thought it was grounds for a penalty shot. He was wide open in the clear. But there are lots of things you can look back on and say, `If we would have put the puck into the net at some point, we'd be out here smiling.'''

Besides, who's to say Roenick would have scored on the penalty shot? Though he beat Patrick Roy on a breakaway in Game 3, Roy had stopped Joe Murphy's breakaway in the final minute of regulation to keep Colorado alive.

_There was great goaltending throughout.

Belfour made 54 saves and was especially incredible in the second overtime. Nevertheless, he lost for the first time in a month after a 6-0 start in the playoffs. (Jeff Hackett started for the ill Belfour in Chicago's only other defeat.)

``Now we've got a loss on Eddie, and hopefully we can keep going,'' said Roy, who made 32 saves and dominated the first overtime.

_Finally, there was Sakic, who is making a name for himself after several outstanding but anonymous years with the Quebec Nordiques. The franchise moved to Denver before this season.

Sakic, who opened the scoring in the second period and also assisted on Valeri Kamensky's goal, leads the playoffs in goals (12) and points (17).

``When you get near the net,'' Colorado coach Marc Crawford said, ``there's no one else you'd rather have there.''

That's just where Sakic was when he took Alexei Gusarov's pass and scored low to Belfour's stick side.

Had he been thinking he might score the winner?

``No, I was too tired to think,'' he said. ``Both teams wanted it. Both teams played hard. It was the most important win (in franchise history). If we don't win, we're down 3-1 in the series and that's tough.''

It was the second consecutive overtime game between the teams, the third of the series and Chicago's fourth in five games. The Blackhawks, who finished their first-round sweep of Calgary with a triple-overtime victory, had won their first three OT games.

``We finally broke through,'' Roy said. ``We had no choice.''