Whatever Barry Melrose was on, I’d like to partake.

Melrose, the venerable hockey yakster for ESPN, last week predicted the Colorado Avalanche would bury the Red Wings in six games. His more sane partner, ESPN.com writer EJ Hradek, picked Detroit in six. Melrose forecasted a “nasty” series that he felt the Avs would win because … well, I can’t really remember why; I tuned him out after he made his selection. Hradek, for his part, looked at the Red Wings’ experience and determination and the way they closed out the Nashville Predators and made a cooler-headed pick.

Was this ever a series? Aside from the Avs making Game 1 interesting after falling into a 4-1 hole, this was NFL Champs vs. College All-Stars; the Packers at home vs. the Lions; Israel vs. the 1967 Arabs. Magic Johnson’s late night talk show run looks like that of 60 Minutes compared to how long the Avs-Red Wings series was competitive.

I don’t think I’ve ever felt sorry for the Avalanche or their fans, but last night’s 8-2 pasting the Red Wings put on Colorado made me come close. By hockey standards, this was a driven, well-oiled machine led by a forward as hot as a firecracker against a depleted, hurt, overmatched opponent. By history standards, this might be the series that pretty much ends the era of the Avs-Red Wings rivalry. It had a good run; time to move on.

It’s hard to justify any four-game sweep having a turning point, but Colorado coach Joel Quenneville will — and with good reason — have to answer some questions, notably: Why the hell was Jose Theodore the starting goalie in this series, certainly after Game 2?

By contrast, Red Wings coach Mike Babcock played a hunch before Game 5 of the Preds series and switched starting goalies. Dominik Hasek wasn’t awful in Games 3 and 4 in Nashville, but he wasn’t very good, either. A case could definitely have been made to stick with Dom at home in Game 5. But Babcock coached for the moment, believing that you can’t win the Cup if you’re eliminated in Round 1. So he chose to worry about the future in the future, and inserted Chris Osgood. Ozzie has been solid, and the Red Wings are 6-0 since the move.

Quenneville, on the other hand, started a sick goalie in Game 1 against Detroit (it wasn’t reported that Theodore was ill until after he’d been pulled), and after declaring him all better for Game 2, Theodore was again lifted in favor of Peter Budaj, who played well in both games. Yet Quenneville still had a chance to make amends when the series shifted to Denver. He could have (and SHOULD have) started Budaj in Game 3. The Avs were hurting, demoralized, and needed a spark. A goalie change would have provided that. Budaj certainly couldn’t have played much worse than Theodore. Sometimes change for change’s sake is what’s needed in a playoff series. It can shift momentum. But we’ll never know, because Quenneville stubbornly stayed with Theodore, who played OK in Game 3 but not well enough to steal a win. Then what happens? Quenneville STILL stuck with Theodore in Game 4, and Jose got pulled for the third time after giving up two goals late in the first period. Budaj didn’t fare any better, but that’s not the point. All summer, Avs fans will wonder, “What if the coach had called Budaj’s number for Game 3?”

Oh well.

The Red Wings went 8-0-0 against the Avs in 2007-08. If this is still a rivalry, it is in the way that the Coyote is rivals with the Roadrunner.

Coming Monday (or Wednesday, depending on the Stars-Sharks series): a look ahead to the conference finals.
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In the end, the 2007-08 Philadelphia 76ers will go down along with the 1987-88 Washington Bullets and the 1990-91 Atlanta Hawks as teams who put a scare into a superior Pistons team, only to still go home after Round 1. The Pistons needed the full five games to beat those Bullets and Hawks (3-of-5 back then), but each time recovered to make it to the Eastern finals. Neither year, though, did the Pistons win the championship. Whatever, right?

The Sixers, after halftime of Game 4, were like those magic trick victims pulled out of the crowd and helped on stage, only to have the magician relieve them of their wallets, undershirts, or pants while the audience laughs. The Pistons seized control of the series in the third quarter of Game 4, and never relinquished it. That infamous, mythic “switch” that everyone keeps talking about became stuck in the ON position.

Philly fans, not exactly known for their compassion, reportedly gave their team a standing ovation after Game 6’s 100-77 slaughter. They were recognizing an effort that resulted in a 22-12 season-ending run and a surprising pair of wins over the Pistons in the playoffs. Makes you wonder: did the Wachovia Center ventilation system get injected with nitrous oxide? Talk about out of character.

So now it’s on to face the Orlando Magic, who aren’t the runts the Pistons swept last year in Round 1. Dwight Howard has more confidence, and also a series win under his belt. The Magic properly took care of the inferior Toronto Raptors in five games. The anticipated matchup with the Celtics isn’t fait accompli. The Pistons will beat the Magic, but don’t be surprised if it takes all of seven games to do so.

Also, I give Sixers coach Maurice Cheeks high marks. He had his team ready to play at the beginning of the series, and he was loose — joking with the Palace crowd frequently. That his team fell apart isn’t so much an indictment against him as an affirmation of the Pistons’ superiority. Way to go, Mo!

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