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Avs playing like Av-nots

Colorado seems mortal without Forsberg, Roy and Foote in lineup

Knight Ridder Newspapers

DENVER -- The Wild pulled into town Wednesday trailing the Colorado Avalanche in the Northwest Division and Western Conference races.

That's hardly new considering the Avs' regular-season supremacy over Minnesota and their trophy case stocked with two Stanley Cups and nine divisional titles over the past decade.

But these are hardly the Avalanche of Peter Forsberg, Patrick Roy and Adam Foote, a team that dominated and punished the Wild and made them dread visits to the Pepsi Center.

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"We used to pray," coach Jacques Lemaire said.

Notwithstanding the 2003 playoff miracle, when the Wild beat the Avalanche in the conference quarterfinals, Minnesota has lost 16 of 21 games to Colorado with only one victory in Denver since 2000.

These days, however, the Avs -- without Forsberg, Roy and Foote -- are just another team redefining themselves as they scratch for points and a firm footing in the shifting hierarchy of the West.

Colorado has lost four of its past five games and sits in fourth place in the Northwest Division, five points ahead of the Wild, who have won three of four.

Entering play Wednesday, the Avs clung to the eighth position in the West, having ceded conference authority to Vancouver, Detroit and Dallas for the foreseeable future.

"It's a different look for us, but it's our own fault," said defenseman Rob Blake, who carries an unsightly minus-14 into tonight's game.

Of course, nobody in the Wild dressing room is preparing the Avalanche's obituary, not with captain Joe Sakic, Alex Tanguay and rookie Marek Svatos leading a top-three offense that can still hog the puck and leave opponents in its wake.

But the Avalanche have a vulnerability not seen since the team moved from Quebec to the Rockies 10 years ago.

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Only Columbus, St. Louis and Chicago have allowed more goals than Colorado's 113, and not one of those teams is going anywhere. The Avs' goaltending, once dominant under Roy's singular presence, is a three-headed monster of inconsistency.

David Aebischer, who thrived as a starter in 2003-04 after inheriting the crease when Roy retired, lost his job this season with a bloated 3.50 goals-against average and feeble .884 save percentage. He was a healthy scratch Tuesday at Nashville.

Rookie Peter Budaj, scheduled to start tonight, has been mediocre in his first season as a starter. Ditto for Vitaliy Kolesnik, who was called up Dec. 6 from the minors.

Carrying three healthy goalies is an indictment of performance at the position, and it eats up a valuable roster spot. And Colorado is stuck with all three until the holiday roster freeze ends Dec. 26.

It is a soft spot the Wild hope to exploit during their two-night home-and-home series.

"Goaltending hasn't been great for them, so we're going to throw as many pucks as we can at them," captain Willie Mitchell said.

During their recent swoon, the Avalanche have had a bad habit of falling behind. The early deficits robbed momentum and tempted them to abandon defensive responsibilities in the scramble to catch up, exposing their goaltenders.

"They're in a tough position," said former Wild winger Andrew Brunette, who plays his former team for the first time tonight. "There's a lot of pressure on them.

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"We open up when we're down a goal and force things a little bit because we know we can score and get it back right away. That puts us on our heels. We end up running around in our end, and the next thing you know it's 2-0. We need to be a little bit stingier."

The free-agent departures of Forsberg and Foote left voids at center and defense, and the loss of winger Steve Konowalchuk to a wrist injury has removed more bite from the Avs' lineup.

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