DENVER - When Colorado Avalanche defenseman Rob Blake calls teammate Joe Sakic “the face of the franchise” it’s not an exaggeration. Sakic is in his 17th NHL season, and he has played all 17 with the Avalanche/Quebec Nordiques organization. He is the franchise’s all-time leader in games, goals and assists. He is the team’s captain, and the only player on the roster who was with the club when it moved to Colorado from Quebec in 1995. But this season — for better and worse — it seems especially appropriate to equate Sakic and the franchise. Throughout a sometimes fabulous, sometimes frustrating 2005-06, Sakic — like his team — has been maddeningly inconsistent. He has resembled his “Super Joe” self at times. He had 21 points (10 goals, 11 assists) during a stretch of 16 games in late November and December. But he has looked like an average Joe just as often. Sakic scored goals in three of the 20 games before the Olympic break. “I’m doing all the right things, the puck is just not going in,” Sakic said before leaving for the Olympics. “I’m maybe squeezing the stick a little bit. You get around the net, and you start shooting too quick.” The Olympics were disappointing for Canada, which won the gold medal in 2002 but was beaten this time in the quarterfinals by Russia. Sakic scored a goal and had two assists in five games. Sakic also suffered a gash to his left cheek and a mini-bone fracture thanks to a high-stick in a game against Switzerland. He missed no games, however, and Avalanche spokesman Jean Martineau said Monday that Sakic probably will play tonight against the Minnesota Wild. Colorado general manager Pierre Lacroix is quick to point out the Avalanche is the fourthhighest scoring team in the NHL at 3.58 goals per game. During Sakic’s goal-scoring drought of 10 straight games, Colorado was 8-2. But it seems unlikely the Avalanche will do much in the playoffs without more from Sakic. Colorado’s two Stanley Cup titles coincided with Sakic’s best seasons. In 1995-96, Sakic had a career-high 120 points (51 goals, 69 assists) in the regular season and led the league in points in the playoffs with 34. In 2000-01, he had 118 points (54 goals and 64 assists) in the regular season and a league-high 26 points (including a league-high 13 goals) in the playoffs. This year, if Sakic stays on his current pace and plays 82 games, he will finish with 78 points. That would be his lowest points-pergame ratio since his rookie season. His shooting percentage of 10.7 is nearly three points below his career average and just ninth-best among Avalanche forwards. And his plus-minus ratio is minus-5, second-worst among forwards. Players scoffed at the idea Sakic’s struggles mean he has lost a step or that the year off because of the NHL lockout was too much for the 36-year-old to overcome. “In my opinion he’s still one of the premier players in the league,” Vancouver’s Brendan Morrison said. “He’s Joe Sakic,” Colorado's Cody McCormick said. “If he goes in a 10-game rut, he’s going to come out the 10 games after that and get a point a game.” Whether his play has slipped, Sakic’s influence off the ice is stronger than ever. Colorado coach Joel Quenneville was an assistant for the Avalanche for 2½ seasons in the mid-1990s. He said Sakic has “matured in the right fashion” and become more of a leader. “He’s not afraid,” Avalanche forward Ian Laperriere said. “If he’s got something on his mind, he’ll let it out. . . . You always think he’s reserved and quiet, but if he’s got a jab to give you, he’ll throw it out there.” Still, Sakic leads more by example than fiery speeches. Laperriere, who is in his first season with the Avalanche, said in his 11 years in the NHL he has not come across a player who works harder than Sakic. Sakic credited former teammate Guy Lafleur for his work ethic. Lafleur, one of the greatest wings in hockey history, was signed by the then-Nordiques before the 1989-90 season, Sakic’s second with the club. Sakic roomed with Lafleur on the road and noticed how, in the last two seasons of a 17-year career, Lafleur would be on the ice shooting pucks before his teammates arrived at practice. “As a kid, you’re just having fun and playing,” said Sakic, who moved ahead of Lafleur on the all-time goal scoring list in late January. “You want to work hard, but you look to older guys and really learn from them. You watch the way they act on the ice and off the ice.” Leadership abilities aside, Sakic knows he needs to play better if the Avalanche is to make a serious run this season at the Stanley Cup. He is confident he will. “I’ve been in these (slumps) before, and you know you’ll get out of them,” he said. Sakic pointed out that his longest goal-scoring drought — 18 games — took place just before the Olympic break in 2002. He came back from those Games energized, and had 16 points (five goals, 11 assists) as Colorado went 7-2-1 in its first 10 games after the break. “I’m hoping it’s the same trend (this year),” Sakic said. The Avalanche is too. CONTACT THE WRITER: 636-0365 or email@example.com TODAY Minnesota (29-25-5) at Colorado (32-21-6), 7 p.m., OLN, 740/950 AM
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