It's just another game day in the grind that is the NHL season, but there was something a little extra special in the air Thursday morning at Pepsi Center and in the Colorado Avalanche locker room.
With a win against the Vancouver Canucks and a loss of any fashion by the Phoenix Coyotes to the New Jersey Devils tonight, the Avs would clinch a playoff spot for the first time since 2010.
"It would be a big accomplishment," Colorado center Matt Duchene said. "That was our goal early in the season, to make the playoffs and challenge for a Stanley Cup. That's step one so it would be great to do it tonight."
The Avalanche players were well aware of the situation after today's morning skate of possibly clinching a playoff spot, but they also entered tonight's game with the mentality of picking up a win against a team that has had their number as of late and is beginning to find its stride.
The Canucks are on a three-game winning streak after a 5-2 victory on Wednesday in Minnesota and are fighting for their own playoff hopes, as they are four points out of the final Western Conference wild card spot. Colorado lost the first meeting versus Vancouver this season, 3-1, on Dec. 8, and the Avs are 1-9-2 in their last 12 games against the Canucks.
"We want to improve our record against them," Duchene said. "We've struggled against them the last four or five years. It would be nice to get a win tonight on home ice."
A win for the Avs would make for an extra special night, not only getting a chance to clinch a playoff position but also defeating a former Northwest Division rival.
During the Avalanche's morning skate, head coach Patrick Roy got his players together and talked to them on how the only thing they can control is the task at hand. The team's task tonight is trying to defeat the Canucks and end its two-game losing streak on home ice.
"Patrick mentioned it this morning that we can do it on our own by winning, instead of waiting for another team to lose or get help," said defenseman Nate Guenin of the team making the playoffs. "We would like to clinch a spot on home ice with a win, and we have the opportunity tonight."
This evening's game begins at 7 p.m., and with the Coyotes playing in New Jersey at 5 p.m. MT, the Avs may know if they control their own destiny after the first period. If Colorado loses, the team could still earn a postseason berth in its next few games.
Roy said in his pregame news conference that the Avs' focus wouldn't immediately turn to the playoffs even if the team clinches a spot later in the day.
"It would be nice to get this out of the way in some ways, but it's not that important," Roy said. "To me, it's to see our team play consistent hockey. I don't want us to look at the big picture all the time. What I want us to do is focusing on what we have to do, what we control. We have been talking all along that we want to be even-keel from the start of the year, and it certainly is not going to change today because we start sniffing the playoffs."
The Avs have missed the postseason for the last three years and in four of the last five, so for the players to be in this position in late March makes for a fun atmosphere around the rink.
For some of the players, it's been years since they've been on a team that could clinch a spot and is battling for a better position for the NHL's second season.
"This is awesome. I haven't been to the playoffs since junior so this is going to be pretty exciting," Tyson Barrie said. "Hopefully, we can string a few together here to close this season out and finish strong going into the playoffs and try and get that home-ice advantage."
JOHNSON A GAME-TIME DECISION
Defenseman Erik Johnson missed today's morning skate practice with the flu and is questionable to play tonight against the Canucks.
"We'll know more [later]," Roy said. "He didn't feel to good this morning. He had a bit of the flu. We'll see if he is capable of playing tonight."
If Johnson feels good enough to go, Roy said the Avalanche would then use an uneven lineup of 11 forwards and seven defensemen against the Canucks. If Johnson is too sick to play then Nate Guenin will take his spot in the lineup.
Johnson leads all Colorado defensemen in assists (26) and points (34) and leads the team in average ice time (23:00). His eight goals are second on the club and are only two shy of a career high he set in 2009-10 with St. Louis.
The Bloomington, Minn., native's next game will be the 400th of his NHL career.
MORE MORNING NOTES
- Semyon Varlamov will get the start in net for Colorado. He is 19-6-1 in his last 26 starts and 22-6-5 in his last 35 games (33 starts).
- Forward John Mitchell is still day-to-day with a back injury and won't play this evening. Roy said he is getting better but likely won't play against the Sharks on Saturday afternoon as well. Roy is hopeful that Mitchell can return to the lineup next Tuesday at Columbus.
- Colorado has five different 20-goal scorers, most in the NHL. Ryan O'Reilly leads the team with 26, followed by Gabriel Landeskog (23), Nathan MacKinnon (23), Matt Duchene (22) and Paul Stastny (20). This is the first time that Colorado has had five 20-goal scorers since 2006-07 (Joe Sakic, Milan Hejduk, Paul Stastny, Andrew Brunette, Wojtek Wolski). The Avalanche also has five 50-point scorers this year, tied with Chicago and Pittsburgh for most in the NHL. The last time Colorado had five 50-point producers was also 2006-07.
- The Avalanche's 45 wins are its most since 2001-02 (45) and its 96 points are its highest total since 2003-04 (100).
- Colorado is 23-11-3 at Pepsi Center (.662), the team's most home wins since 2009-10 (24).
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