It has come down to the final day of the regular season for the Colorado Avalanche.
The Avs already know they will be in the playoffs when they begin next week, but there are several questions for the team that have yet to be answered. Who will they play in the first round? Where will they finish in the Western Conference standings? Will they raise another division-championship banner to the Pepsi Center rafters? Those answers will come from what happens on Sunday.
Colorado has already secured home-ice advantage for the first round of the playoffs, but it could play three possible teams entering the final hours of the regular season. Those teams are Chicago, the third seed in the Central Division, and wild card clubs Minnesota and Dallas. The matchup will be decided on if the Avs can win the Central Division and possibly the Western Conference.
The Avalanche is tied with the St. Louis Blues for first in the division with 111 points, but it holds the first tiebreaker in regulation and overtime wins (47-43).
Colorado could have secured the division on Friday night with a win in San Jose, but the Sharks scored three unanswered goals in the third period to take a 5-1 victory. Despite the loss, the Avs are still in a good position to win the Central Division.
"As tough as it was to give this one up on a back-to-back, we still control our own fate," Avalanche defenseman Erik Johnson said to NHL.com after Friday's game. "That's a good position to be in."
Head coach Patrick Roy and the rest of the Avalanche players have said throughout the week that they want to place high in the standings from winning on the ice and not fall into a good position from another team losing. However with St. Louis hosting the Detroit Red Wings in its season finale on Sunday morning (10:30 a.m. MT, NBC), it is a very real possibility that the Avs would know if they have won the division before their final game begins at the Anaheim Ducks.
There are several different scenarios for the Avalanche to win its first division championship since 2002-03.
If the Blues lose to the Red Wings then the Avs capture the division title before even taking the ice at Honda Center because of the tiebreaker. If St. Louis gets a victory against Detroit then Colorado would need to win later in the day. If St. Louis loses in overtime or in a shootout then Colorado would need to equal with at least a point against Anahiem. If both the Avs and the Blues win or lose on Sunday then Colorado takes the division via the tiebreaker.
Anaheim leads the Western Conference with 112 points, one more than Colorado, but a regulation loss to the Los Angeles Kings on Saturday night could make Sunday's contest even more meaningful and give the Avs a chance at the top seed for the playoffs.
If the Ducks gain just a point versus the Kings (overtime or shootout loss) then Anaheim claims the Western Conference regular-season championship and will play Dallas in the first round. The Ducks hold the tiebreaker over the Avalanche so they just need to gain a point in their final two games to win the conference.
If the Ducks lose to the Kings in regulation and the Avs win in regulation on Sunday, Colorado would capture its first regular-season conference title since 2000-01 and would play Dallas. If the Avs win their division and finish second in the conference then they'll play Minnesota when the playoffs begin. If the Avs finish second in their division then they'll face Chicago.
No matter what happens Saturday night for Anaheim or early Sunday for St. Louis, Roy said his club would be going for it against the Ducks.
"We are always playing to win," Roy said after Friday's game. "We're going to go with [Semyon Varlamov], and we'll see how it goes."
Roy has said this week he would make a decision on which goalie would start the final game based on where the Avs are in the standings and if they could move up or down. If the game had no meaning for the standings, backup Jean-Sebastien Giguere was thought to get the start against his former club that he won the Conn Smythe Trophy with in 2003 as playoff MVP and the Stanley Cup with in 2007.
Now that the Avs' game with the Ducks has significance in the standings, usual starter Varlamov will be in net. Varlamov leads the NHL with 41 wins this season, and Roy has said his goalie deserves to be a candidate for the Vezina Trophy (league's best goalie) and the Hart Memorial Trophy (regular-season MVP).
The result from Sunday's game versus the Ducks won't make or break the Avalanche's season or playoff hopes, but the opportunity is what the team has been aiming for all season: to be playing meaningful games come mid-April.
"If it happens, it happens and it’s a bonus," said Giguere earlier in the week on Colorado's chance of winning the division. "If not, it doesn’t matter. Every team that is going to be in the playoffs is going to be a good team."
The Avalanche began its season at home on Oct. 2 with a 6-1 win over the Ducks. Just over six months later, who would have thought the Avs would be competing for the division and maybe a conference title on the final day of regular season in Anaheim against those same Ducks?
The final hours of the 2013-14 season are going to be fun.
Barrie left Friday's game in San Jose with an upper-body injury after he collided with Jason Demers in the Sharks' zone midway through the first period. Barrie fell to the ice in pain after the hit, but he was able to make it back to the Avs' bench on his own power.
The defenseman returned to the ice two minutes later and went out for three more shifts before the first intermission, but he did not return to the Colorado bench for the rest of the game.
"We'll see how it goes the next couple of days," Roy said after the game, not knowing the severity of the injury at the time since he hadn't talked with head athletic trainer Matt Sokolowski yet.
Elliott made his NHL debut in 2011-12 with the Avalanche, but he has yet to play with Colorado this season. He has 17 points (five goals and 12 assists) in 57 career NHL contests and plays a similar style to Barrie as an offensive-minded defenseman. Elliott has 14 goals and 14 assists this year for Lake Erie and has eight points (five goals and three assists) in his last 13 games with the Monsters.
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