1/24/97 -- 1:44 AM


PITTSBURGH (AP) - It was January, not June, even if the game had the look and feel of the Stanley Cup playoffs - a dramatic comeback, unexpected heroes and ever-changing plot twists.

The stars were out, too, but only with injuries: Mario Lemieux, Joe Sakic, Peter Forsberg, and, by the end of the first period, Patrick Roy.

Still, the Colorado Avalanche might have the worst luck in the NHL, but they have the best record, too. These days, nothing beats depth - not even the Pittsburgh Penguins.

``We got the job done, but we did it the tough way,'' said Adam Deadmarsh, who scored twice and had two assists as the defending champion Avalanche ended Pittsburgh's 14-game unbeaten streak Thursday night by winning 4-3.

``That was an awful way to lose a game,'' said coach Eddie Johnston, whose Penguins rallied with three third-period goals before losing on Valeri Kamensky's rebound goal at 3:55 of overtime.

Even with the top scorers missing for both teams, the Avalanche and Penguins showed why they're No. 1 and 3, respectively, in the NHL overall standings. Colorado opened a three-goal lead, then promptly lost it, but still gathered itself to beat the NHL's best home team. The Penguins are 15-4-3 at the Civic Arena.

Colorado is 10-1-2 in its last 13 games despite a 3-2 overtime loss Tuesday night in Tampa Bay. Pittsburgh had been 12-0-2 overall and 7-0-1 at home since losing Dec. 17 to Boston.

``We did a great job of fighting through everything,'' Avalanche coach Marc Crawford said. ``We had a three-goal lead, and we were disappointed about the lead diminishing, but I thought our guys regrouped at 3-3 and they didn't panic.''

Neither did Penguins rookie goalie Patrick Lalime, who was beaten for the first time in 17 career starts (14-1-2) but, according to Johnston, lost neither his confidence nor his composure.

``I was sorry the streak had to end, but I knew it had to end sometime,'' Lalime said. ``We'll just have to start a new streak.''

Lalime, 22, finally got the chance to oppose his boyhood idol, Roy, but for less than a period. Roy left with a sprained right thumb after Pittsburgh forward Joe Dziedzic accidentally skated across it during a flurry in front of the net.

``I don't think it's too bad, but he couldn't hold the stick,'' Crawford said.

Dziedzic, scratched recently for 16 consecutive games, would have played a key role even if he hadn't run over Roy's thumb.

Seeing more ice time with NHL scoring leader Lemieux out with back spasms, Dziedzic set up Joe Mullen's 497th career goal to make it 3-2. Dziedzic then scored the tying goal - only his third of the season - at 15:52 of the third.

``This team feels it's never out of a hockey game,'' said Ron Francis, whose goal started the rally. ``We had numerous chances to win, but we didn't.''

In fact, the Penguins argued they did win it. Kevin Hatcher's tap-in goal at 8:24 of the third was waved off after a replay showed defenseman Jason Woolley's skate in the crease. That meant Dziedzic's goal, which otherwise would have won it, only tied the score.

``I think we can hold our heads high after that one, after scoring three goals, no, actually four, in that third period,'' Dziedzic said.

Woolley's infraction is rarely penalized unless the offending player clearly interferes with the goalie, but referee Paul Devorski chose to enforce the rule.

``I hate that rule,'' Woolley said. ``That's a technicality, and it's too bad that it hurt us.''

Colorado, which squandered a two-goal lead in losing Tuesday night, had been 0-1-8 in overtime.

``It's a good victory to battle the way we did after the other night,'' said Craig Billington, 6-2-2 as Roy's backup. ``That was a tough one for us. It's great to see us finally win in overtime.''

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