With three weeks remaining before the playoffs, the team's biggest challenge may be to avoid boredom. That is why tonight's game in Detroit should hold everyone's attention.
''It will be a very interesting game,'' said Patrick Roy, the goalie. ''We expect a tough game.''
Although the Avalanche has defeated the Red Wings in all three meetings this season, the games have been close and mean-spirited. The rivalry has been one of the league's spiciest during a dreary season.
Since Colorado won the violent, six-game Western Conference finals between the two last spring, the animosity has been verbal and visceral. It could increase tonight when Claude Lemieux of the Avalanche makes his first appearance in the Motor City since the Kris Draper incident.
Lemieux was suspended during the playoffs for breaking bones in Draper's face with a check into the boards from behind.
In Colorado's only other visit to Detroit this season, Lemieux was idle because of an injury. He also missed Detroit's first game in Denver, in which two Avalanche players, Rene Corbet and Aleksei Gusarov, left the ice on stretchers.
The aftermath featured a bilingual shouting match in the corridor between Pierre Lacroix, the Colorado general manager, and Martin Lapointe, the Detroit forward whose hit disabled Gusarov for almost three weeks.
When Lemieux finally played in a 4-2 victory over the Wings on March 16 in Denver, some Detroit fans held up signs with his name on a tombstone. Lemieux and Draper had only one brief, jostling clash, and both earned misconduct penalties on the play.
Will the mood be different in Detroit? Opinions differ among the Avalanche players. Keith Jones said: ''I'm sure they'll be all revved up about Claude making his return. The more it's built up, the better we play.''
Mike Keane said he doesn't expect much hostility.
''The Lemieux-and-Draper thing is over now,'' Keane said.
''They had their chance to settle the score last game.''
Crawford said he expected the league to assign a senior referee and to send a senior supervisor to oversee the situation. Before the last meeting, a supervisor spoke to both coaches.
Draper told reporters after yesterday's practice that Lemieux ''crossed the line'' with the attack last spring and doesn't back up his bravado in the traditional Canadian hockey manner: by fistfighting.
''He won't fight guys on this team, at least not the guys who can fight,'' Draper said.
Darren McCarty of the Wings said of Lemieux: ''I have no respect for the way he plays. He's gutless and he won't stand up for himself.''
Lemieux, who was absent from practice when his teammates commented for this story, and he didn't respond to two requests for a telephone interview. But before the previous game against Detroit, he said Draper should thank him for the publicity that came from a blind-side check that necessitated reconstructive surgery on Draper's bloody, swollen face.
''It's certainly not his 7 goals, 4 assists and minus 9 that's going to get attention,'' Lemieux said of Draper.
Aside from the Lemieux element, tonight's game serves as a playoff preview. While Colorado appears to be the Western Conference favorite, Detroit is in decline. After losing 13 games last season, the Wings are 34-23-15 and will probably finish third in the West, behind Dallas.
Despite adding the aggressive forwards Brendan Shanahan and Tomas Sandstrom, the Wings lack production from some key players. One is Steve Yzerman, the 31-year-old captain who recently signed a four-year contract with a no-trade clause that will pay him $4.5 million a season. Yzerman scored last Sunday for the first time in 16 games.
With only 17 goals, Yzerman has four misconduct penalties and has been public in his criticism of referees. In three games against Colorado, Yzerman has one goal and one assist. Shanahan leads Detroit with 45 goals, 20 on the power play, but sometimes shows less than full effort.
Sergei Fedorov, second with 28 goals, has been relegated to a checking role by Coach Scotty Bowman. Fedorov seems perplexed by the slow pace of negotiations for a new contract. A restricted free agent this summer, Fedorov could leave if the Wings don't match a competing contract offer. If he moves, Detroit could get up to five first-round draft choices as compensation.
Fedorov said Bowman recently asked him whether he would like to switch from forward to defense, where, Bowman said, Fedorov could play 28 minutes a game.
Bowman recently reached the 1,000-victory plateau, more than any N.H.L. coach. But former players denounce him bitterly for what they call a lack of interpersonal communication skills. And there are strong indications that this could be his last season behind the Detroit bench.
Bowman's unpleasant working relationship with Jim Devellano, the senior vice president, is well-known.
They don't like each other, Devellano said recently, but that doesn't mean they can't work together.
Organizationally, the Wings behave like one big, dysfunctional family.
The Avalanche, a team where the general manager's son, Eric, takes regular shifts at left wing, act as though they are one big, happy, multicultural clan.
''Pierre is very big on chemistry,'' Keane, an English-Canadian, said of Lacroix, who is one of hockey's few French-Canadian general managers. ''He's got good-quality people who get along great. No sour apples.''