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Frozen in Time

Stanley finale provides the ultimate in drama

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Patrick Roy gets a good-luck touch from Dave Reid. - DARRALD BENNETT

I get dizzy whenever I enter the arena. It could be the drop in temperature down next to the refrigerating unit that keeps the pond frozen well into a Rocky Mountain June.

Maybe it's just the utter enormity of attention, the 20,000 angles of temptation, the swarm of stories converging on the moment. The series comes at you like the Avalanche on a power play, patiently changing the angles, getting a new look at the target, circling it into submission. One moment it's the carnival-like atmosphere outside the Pepsi Center, watching Devils hanging in effigy while kids get their hair colored maroon and blue, where everybody's looking but nobody's selling, running down rumors of a lone scalper asking $500 a pair.

Or maybe it's the churning sea of pompoms shaking their fists at me, every bit as hallucinatory as the Stanley Cup Finals should ever be in the folklore of our fantasies.

Mostly it's the unraveling action in the rink, where everything has gone the way a dramatist would want as the ninth month of the season gives birth to its final days. The icebound characters we're most emotionally attached to are at the center of the action, tragic flaws and all, challenging their destiny and stretching the limits of our vicarious suffering, touching the psyche where we never knew we were so sensitive.

The Avalanche have brought Ray Bourque to the brink, watching him turn the red light on and pump his fist. They have offered Chris Drury a bookend to his Little League World Series, his scrambling skates chasing pucks into the net. And they hang with Joe Sakic on the precipice of vindication. Even their enemies are storybook, exemplified in rock-headed Bobby Holik, the neutralizing Czech Devil who talks like the Terminator but has proven to be more formidable than Arnold's favorite dreams.

Moments that repeat themselves 82 times a season take on new significance in this rare and cherished time of year: the pre-game warm-up, the stretching, skating, shooting routines, Bourque clearing the ice, the last one out, swatting Adam Foote with his stick as they disappear into the tunnel for the final 24 minutes. The superstitious encounter each Av initiates with Patrick Roy, touching his skates, his stick, his pads as though they are blessing his shield in their own sacred ritual.

Roy's are the most intensely determined eyes in sports, the one aspect the camera can frame that few of us off the ice can ever really appreciate. But after losing the second game in a row Monday, Roy's eyes were losing their patience, aiming at the ceiling, fixing on the floor, and rolling back in his head, incredulous at post-game questions persisting after the dreamed-of return of Peter Forsberg.

The media masses have trouble with the attention span necessary for a seven-game series, changing the rules with each misperception of shifting advantages and morphing momentum, recasting it into a five-game, three-game and one-game series. Roy knows better the long-range reality of the seventh game, and he is aching with impatience to get back on the ice and prove it.

Colorado fans, notoriously fickle in vilifying contenders who lose the last game of the season, have been uniquely supportive of their hockey team. Theirs is that rarity of contemporary sports houses whose fans can glimpse, however fleetingly, beyond the score and appreciate winning performances even in losing efforts. They take deadly serious their part as the seventh man, vocally declaring their solidarity through all but the most hopeless of times.

"I hear them," Patrick Roy says when asked about the effect of 20,000 Avs fans chanting his name like a mantra toward oneness. They stood by their man in the first period, but they bolted for the parking lot when the fair weather turned and the score went to 4-1 in the final two minutes.

When you're bred for triumph, there is no harder thing than coming up a goal, a game short. It is those times when the crowd is more important than ever, picking you up when there's no hope left, celebrating the moments the record books will neglect. Anything less is too sobering to imagine.

There was no attempt to bid the team farewell Monday. No entertaining the possibility of a last game. Loyalty? Perhaps. Maybe faith. Or it might just be denial. Without Game 7, the story is a bitter tease. From training camp through deadline acquisitions, we didn't ask Bourque to the dance simply to chaperon somebody's else's homecoming coronation.

"There's no quit in us," Bourque said Monday, determined to find a way to play another game in Colorado. "I've got plenty of juice left. Believe me."

If both teams follow form, the Devils will squander their breathing room and the Avs will step up when they need to, bringing the world the Game 7 showdown it craves.

Everything is at stake, the defining moment of a 22-year span caught in the avalanche of an impending ending. Drink up of that dizzying feeling as the ground slips away beneath you, your feet spinning in futility as you try to keep pace with the mountain falling out from under you. Sweet inebriation.

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