DENVER - Leaning against his locker, Colorado Avalanche defenseman Adam Foote looks harmless enough, his freckled face and fair hair portraying a boyish innocence.
Don't be fooled.
On the ice, Foote is Dennis the Menace in a helmet and hockey skates as he goes about making life miserable for the NHL's best forwards.
"That's what Footer thrives on, the intensity and the battle," teammate Rob Blake said Sunday. "He loves it. That's how he gets in the game. That's how he's brought his game to the level it's at."
Foote and the Avalanche are winning their latest battle, needing one more victory over the St. Louis Blues to earn a trip to the Stanley Cup finals. Colorado leads the series 3-1 and can eliminate St. Louis in Game 5 on Monday night.
Assigned to shadow Blues forward Keith Tkachuk, Foote has done a bang-up job in an individual rematch of last year's playoffs when the two shoved, wrestled and antagonized one another in Colorado's first-round defeat of the Phoenix Coyotes.
Tkachuk's uniform changed but his luck has not. He has just one assist in four games against Colorado while trying to find room in front of the net.
"It'd be nice if he'd score," Blues coach Joel Quenneville said. "He's certainly put himself in position to score."
Against Colorado, positioning has come with a price as helmets often hit the ice when Foote and Tkachuk angle for position.
"He's the type of guy, if you give him an inch he'll take it and he can do some damage," Foote said. "He's got better speed than people think, and he's strong. I just try not to let him get a foot on me."
Paired with Ray Bourque, Foote helped shut down opponents' top lines last year. The addition of Blake has given the Avs flexibility to mix and match the "Big Three" depending on the situation.
The formula has been effective as Bourque and Blake have combined for seven goals while Foote keeps the Tkachuks of the world occupied.
"I think it's easier to play for anybody when they're challenged," Foote said. "I've been doing it so long, you get up for it. It is fun, but there's times out there when maybe it's not so fun. There's good days, there's bad days and the key is to stay focused and respect a guy like that."
Pushed to the brink of elimination, the Blues have no choice but to respect Foote and the Avalanche despite the belief that they deserve a better fate. St. Louis has outshot Colorado in each game and 152-110 for the series.
Goaltending has been the most glaring difference. Patrick Roy has nullified St. Louis' shot advantage while Roman Turek has given up seven first-period goals. As a result, the Blues have led just once in the series.
"On the road it would be nice to catch a lead," St. Louis defenseman Al MacInnis said. "We've been playing catch-up hockey for four games and that's pretty tough to do in this league."
The Blues may catch a break Monday night if Colorado defenseman Jon Klemm is unable to play because of a knee injury sustained in Game 4. Klemm is doubtful, meaning the Avs likely will activate Bryan Muir or Nolan Pratt, who have 10 games of playoff experience between them.
Muir appeared in two games in the first round, and Pratt has not played this postseason. Despite being idle, they have tried to learn from Blake, Bourque and Foote.
"It's unbelievable," Muir said. "They're great defensemen. Just the little things they say. Being on the bench, seeing and hearing and watching, it's tremendous what I've learned. I'm trying to take it all in."
For St. Louis, Quenneville is considering putting defenseman Alexei Gusarov back in the lineup in place of Jeff Finley, who has been ineffective since missing the first 12 playoff games with a concussion.
Otherwise, the Blues are just hoping to extend their season another day.
"We can't look beyond Game 5," Tkachuk said. "If we weren't confident, we wouldn't be going to Denver and we're going to Denver. We still haven't played our best game."