The Avalanche was one of the NHL’s hottest teams before the Olympic break, winning 14 games from Dec. 31 to Feb. 8.
That statement still holds true now that the break is over, even though the Avs fell 6-4 to Los Angeles on Wednesday night in their first game back in action.
Head coach Patrick Roy and some of his players were asked after the team's pregame skate this morning how important tonight’s game against Phoenix is, and they all voiced the same refrain: It’s important because all games are important at this point of the season.
The Avalanche gave up four unanswered goals against the Kings (one was an empty-netter) and "dropped" to 14-6-1 since New Year’s Eve. Those 29 points are tied with the New York Rangers (14-5-1) for most in the league in that time span.
This team is playing great hockey right now—it’s been playing great hockey all season—and Roy and his charges aren’t focused or concerned after Wednesday’s slight setback, if you can even call it that.
"We were up 4-2, and I thought we played a good game," Roy said deep inside Pepsi Center on Wednesday night. "I thought we did a lot of good things. The last maybe couple minutes in the second we made a few mistakes, but [L.A.] did a good job. … They competed like we did. I thought it was a great game."
Four of Colorado’s players stayed in on-ice shape during the NHL’s hiatus, with Matt Duchene (Canada), Paul Stastny (USA), Gabriel Landeskog (Sweden) and Semyon Varlamov (Russia) all representing their countries.
The rest of the team got away from the game for a bit, and some of that rust might have been on display Wednesday. The non-Olympic Avs stayed in physical shape while on their hockey respites, but skating and performing at an NHL level wasn’t an available exercise.
Still, the Avs outshot L.A. 29-28 and led 4-2 with less than five minutes to play in the second period. The Kings just played a little better from that point on and, perhaps, caught some breaks.
“We were rusty, for sure, but we had a lot of positives,” said Nathan MacKinnon who had an assist on defenseman Andre Benoit’s second-period goal. “We moved the puck pretty well, especially in the third period, and we were pretty relentless.
“[The Kings] had some nice breaks for themselves. The first goal of the game goes off my pants, deflection … just kind of the way things went for us that night.”
With just 23 games remaining in the regular season and a new postseason playoff format that rewards divisional dominance more than overall conference success, the Avalanche, firmly entrenched in third in the Central Division, is in great position for its first playoff berth since 2010.
There’s still much drama to be played out, though, and Phoenix (1-0-1 against Colorado this season) will skate tonight as a hungry team still on the outside of the playoff picture.
This game is important for Colorado, but not because it needs to reassert itself. It’s important because it’s important.
It’s important because the calendar’s about to flip to March.
It’s important because just six weeks remain in the regular season.
It’s important because two games against Central-leading Chicago and one against second-place St. Louis await in the next 12 days.
“We’ve got to play good hockey here if we want to get in the playoffs, and we have to play consistent,” said Ryan O’Reilly who had a goal and an assist Wednesday. “Whether we’re preparing for the playoffs or just trying to get in it’s not going to be easy. Every game is going to be tough, and we’ve got to make sure we’re coming out on top.
“I think we got what we need out of that last game (vs. L.A.). We know we need to be better. There’s things obviously we did well, with our energy and competing, but we have to be better defensively, and we have to be more consistent. We can’t give up that many goals. Down the stretch you do that and teams are going to eat you up.”
» Avalanche rookie Nathan MacKinnon enters tonight’s game with points in his past nine games (five goals, seven assists). That streak is the longest of any NHL rookie this season, and he continues to be a leading candidate for this year’s Calder Trophy.
With a goal or assist tonight Nathan MacKinnon would become the first NHL rookie to record a double-digit point streak since Chicago’s Jonathan Toews had a 10-game streak from Oct. 10 to 31, 2007.
MacKinnon would also become the first Avalanche rookie (since 1995-96) with a 10-game or longer point streak since his teammate Paul Stastny set an NHL rookie record with 20 games with at least one point from Feb. 3 to March 17, 2007.
“I’m not really worried about it,” MacKinnon said. “Maybe that’s why I’m getting points consecutively, because I’m not thinking about it too much. It’s important for me to continue thinking about the team and how we’re going to win, and hopefully I can be a part of it.”
» Goaltender Semyon Varlamov is expected to start in goal tonight for Colorado after backing up Jean-Sebastien Giguere Wednesday night. Roy chose to give Varlamov the extra day of rest after he made three starts for Russia in his hometown Olympics.
Varlamov has already set a career high with 28 wins this season (28-11-5), and those victories are tied for third in the league. His 11 victories since Jan. 1 are tied with Carolina’s Anton Khudobin for the most in the league.
For the season Varalmov has a 2.48 goals-against average and a .924 save percentage.
» Colorado forward Maxime Talbot is expected to be in the lineup tonight vs. Phoenix after missing Wednesday’s game and yesterday’s practice to be with his fiancée Cynthia Phaneuf in welcoming the couple’s first son.
“The best feeling in the world—It’s really exciting,” Talbot said. “I’m really happy to have a little boy and excited to take him home.”
» Avalanche defenseman Andre Benoit needs one game to reach 100 for his NHL career. He will become the 17th active player on the Avalanche roster to appear in at least 100 career games.
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