DETROIT -- Before the Detroit-Colorado rivalry really begins boiling again, the Avalanche need to get healthy first.
Peter Forsberg has a wonky groin and didn't play the opener. Goalie Jose Theodore fell ill and left the rink early. Wojtek Wolski only took a few shifts before suffering an upper-body injury.
The top-ranked Red Wings took advantage, torching the ailing Avs with four early goals and having two less scoring threats to worry about late in clinging to a 4-3 victory in the first game of the Western Conference semifinal last night at Joe Louis Arena.
"Obviously, you want (Forsberg) in there," Avs captain Joe Sakic said, "but we can't let it affect us. We got behind the eight-ball pretty quick. We have to come back hard (tomorrow) because we don't want to fall behind two games to these guys."
Even with the infirmary full, Colorado had a chance to force its fourth overtime in seven playoff games. But sniper Milan Hejduk hit the post and Detroit goalie Chris Osgood made a game-saver with eight seconds left to preserve first blood for the Red Wings.
"Both of our goalies have that ability to make the big save when the game's on the line and that's what you need," said Detroit head coach Mike Babcock.
"When you get up 4-1, that's when you say we got a lot of hockey left and let's get going. It was 4-2 and not a lot was happening and then we stopped going to the net, stopped hitting, they scored and then a lot was happening."
Detroit chased Theodore -- the hottest goalie in the first round of the playoffs -- 1:13 into the second period after four goals on 16 shots. He only surrendered 12 goals in 383 minutes of a six-game win over the Minnesota Wild.
Theodore went back to the hotel before the game was over. Peter Budaj shut down Detroit the rest of the way and Tyler Weiman served as backup in the third period.
"Jose was sick last night. He rested all day and wanted to play but he's not feeling well right now," said Avs coach Joel Quenneville. "Hopefully, it's a short thing. Peter is day-to-day. He pulled his groin in the morning skate and we knew by 5 p.m. he wouldn't be able to go."
Detroit's scoring star came from an unlikely hero -- Swedish forward Johan Franzen.
Franzen finished an assist short of equalling his offensive output in the six-game victory over Nashville with two goals and three points in the opener.
"He was very, very good," Babcock said. "That was our best line (Franzen with Mikael Samuelsson and Valtteri Filppula). We thought if we could get that line going, we would be a very good team.
"We knew if we got through the first round and those guys started scoring, we'd be tough."
With Forsberg out, Mt. Brydges native Cody McCormick played his first NHL playoff game. The 25-year-old has been in 135 regular season contests since 2003-04, but his most recent playoff action was with Albany in the AHL last year.
"I don't know if my family got here for it," he said. "It was a short-notice thing -- pretty much a game-time decision."
Colorado has scored first in all seven of its playoff games. Paul Stastny struck first by converting a nifty Ryan Smyth pass from behind the net. But Henrik Zetterberg replied 53 seconds later by crashing the net and the Wings took the lead for good when a rebound of a Dan Cleary shot went straight up in the air and bounced in behind Theodore.
"That was a tough one," Sakic said. "I took a swing at it (but couldn't connect)."
Sakic remains one point behind former Detroit's captain Steve Yzerman for eighth on the all-time playoff point list. Sakic has 184 in 169 games.
There wasn't any blood, fisticuffs or penalty pileups that marked past Detroit-Colorado matchups. The two teams met for five nasty series in seven years between 1996 and 2002. But the first octopus hit the ice before the puck did for the opening faceoff.
Poor Scott Driscoll. Miffed fans booed lustily at the linesman, a former St. Marys Lincoln, for trying to remove the sticky creature with a shovel.
That job usually goes to rink manager Al Sobotka, who picks up the critter with his bare hands and swings it over his head. But the NHL promised a $10,000 fine if he does it, worried about bits and pieces getting all over the ice and creating injury risk.