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Underdog Avs: Pressure is on San Jose

by Rick Sadowski
CENTENNIAL, Colo. -- Colorado Avalanche coaches and players are relishing the idea of entering first-round playoff action as heavy underdogs.

Seeded eighth in the Western Conference, the Avalanche take on the top-seeded San Jose Sharks in a best-of-7 quarterfinal series that starts Wednesday at the HP Pavilion.

"We feel good," coach Joe Sacco said. "We feel good about the matchup. We know that we are the underdogs, there's no question. I think the pressure's on San Jose. If you look at the last few years, they haven't met their expectations as a team. I think they have higher expectations than what they've achieved. It's going to be our job this year to try to make sure that happens again."

The Sharks amassed 51 wins and 113 points this season, compared to the Avalanche's 43 wins and 95 points, but the teams split four regular-season meetings and there is that San Jose history to contemplate.

The Sharks won the Presidents' Trophy a year ago and expected to contend for the Stanley Cup. Instead, they lost to the eighth-seeded Anaheim Ducks in the opening round. The Sharks also made second-round exits the three previous years following successful regular seasons.

"We have to take the approach that we have nothing to lose. We're going to play with enthusiasm and passion and energy. Really, there's not a lot of pressure on us. We just have to play our game. I think if we do that -- I know if we do that -- we can have success."
-- Joe Sacco

"The pressure is definitely on them," Milan Hejduk said. "Sometimes it's not that easy to play with that kind of pressure. The expectations are very high there. They have a really good team, a fast, young team and they have size. But I feel we match up decent against them."

Sacco believes the Avalanche's lack of playoff experience -- 14 players on the roster, including goalie Craig Anderson, have never participated in a playoff game -- could work in his team's favor.

"We didn't have a whole lot of experience in our lineup and we were still able to accomplish some things that at the start of the season most outsiders said we weren't going to be able to do," he said. "We have to take the approach that we have nothing to lose. We're going to play with enthusiasm and passion and energy. Really, there's not a lot of pressure on us. We just have to play our game. I think if we do that -- I know if we do that -- we can have success.

"There's no question it should be energizing for these guys. We believe we can win. The guys believe in each other and we believe in the players. Realistically, the pressure is on them. The pressure is not on us."

Captain Adam Foote has won two Stanley Cups and is one of three Avalanche players -- Hejduk and Stephane Yelle are the others -- with more than 100 games of postseason experience.

But after finishing in the conference basement a year ago, Foote said this is the first time in his years in Colorado that he's felt so relaxed heading into a playoff series. It's a far cry from the franchise's glory days, when the Avalanche was expected to contend for the Stanley Cup every year.

"I've never felt this mindset ever going into the playoffs at all," Foote said. "This is fun. It's like we're not even supposed to be here. We know we deserve to be here and we know we've played well enough to be here. A lot of experts didn't have us here, didn't expect us to be here. We have to have the mindset of not being too loose, but yet not feeling any pressure at all. It's a completely different feeling that we've ever felt in Colorado.

"The Sharks are No. 1 for a reason, so this is a tough matchup. But we feel confident in our play against that team this year. It's going to be fun. We'll see what happens."

The Avalanche received some encouraging news Monday when rookie center Matt Duchene took part in some light drills. The team didn't practice, but Duchene skated and shot some pucks with forward David Jones, who is recovering from reconstructive knee surgery and remains on injured reserve.

Duchene, who led all NHL rookies with 55 points, suffered what the Avalanche said is a torso injury last Wednesday against Edmonton. He managed to play a little more than five minutes against Chicago on Friday and didn't dress for Sunday's game against Los Angeles.

"He responded well after his skate and he will practice with us (Tuesday)," Sacco said. "Right now I'm hopeful that he will be available for Wednesday night."

Left wing Peter Mueller, who missed the final four games to recover from a concussion, participated in light off-ice workouts for the first time since suffering the injury after a hit by Sharks defenseman Rob Blake in an April 4 game.

Sacco said Mueller "did well" and is listed as day to day.
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