DENVER – First-year Colorado Avalanche coach Joe Sacco certainly is convinced that his team is for real.
The Avalanche provided plenty of evidence Sunday night at the Pepsi Center in a showdown for first place in the Northwest Division with the Calgary Flames.
For the third time in as many meetings this season, the Avalanche skated to a 3-2 win to move into sole possession of the division's top spot by two points over the Flames, who have played three fewer games.
Sacco said the Avalanche's lofty standing, less than a year after the team finished in the Western Conference basement, isn't a fluke.
"We're 35 games into the schedule now and we're on top of our division for a reason," Sacco said of the Avalanche, now 19-10-6. "We work hard, there's lots of energy in our game and the guys believe in the locker room. That's the most important thing. They believe that we can win the division, and that's our ultimate goal, to be on top of our division.
"There's still a long way to go, but there's no reason why we can't stay there."
Solid goaltending from Craig Anderson -- and from Peter Budaj when Anderson recently missed four games with a neck injury -- has been a major factor in the Avalanche's rise from the ashes.
"But you have to make sure that you get first place at the end of 82 (games)," said Anderson, who made 19 saves while pocketing his career-best 16th win of the season. "That's what our goal is. Right now we have to get points and find ways to keep getting 'W's'."
It helps that the line of Wojtek Wolski, Paul Stastny and Chris Stewart has been as hot as any unit in the NHL.
The trio combined for two goals and three assists against the Flames and has totaled 11 goals and 20 assists in the past eight games, during which the Avalanche has gone 5-2-1.
"The more we play with each other, it seems the more we seem to read off each other," said Stewart, who had a goal and an assist Sunday, along with a team-high six of the Avalanche's 35 shots. "Those are two world-class players I'm with, big-name players, and they make the big plays."
Colorado built a 3-1 lead in the second period when Stewart and Darcy Tucker sandwiched goals around one by Calgary's Rene Bourque.
The Flames climbed within 3-2 at 13:16 of the third period on a power-play goal by Mark Giordano, who put a long shot past Anderson for Calgary's first power-play goal in 24 chances spanning six games.
The Avalanche only had two shots in the third period, which has been a problem area at times, but killed off two earlier penalties to maintain the lead.
"For the most part, we did a really good job of playing good defensive hockey," Anderson said. "We did a great job in our own zone and made sure they didn't get second and third chances."
Stewart, who assisted on Wolski's first-period power-play goal, put his own rebound past Miikka Kiprusoff at 9:17 of the second period for a 2-0 advantage after the Flames goalie made a big stop on Wolski's backhander. Wolski corralled the rebound and slid it across to Stewart, who gave it to Stastny and took a return pass before unloading the puck.
"Wolski fed me and I was going to shoot," Stewart said. "I saw Paulie coming, he called for it and I gave it to him. He made a great play and gave it right back to me. I shot it and the goalie made the save on the first one. I was a little nervous then, but I put the rebound in."
Bourque closed the gap to 2-1 at 10:34 when he skated from behind the net into the right faceoff circle and beat Anderson through a screen.
"You have to make sure that you get first place at the end of 82 (games). That's what our goal is. Right now we have to get points and find ways to keep getting 'W's'." -- Craig Anderson
The Avalanche regained its two-goal lead at 17:19 on Tucker's first goal in 18 games. Ryan Wilson fired the puck in front, T.J. Galiardi got his stick on it and Tucker lifted the loose puck over the prone Kiprusoff while parked outside the right post.
The Avalanche enjoyed 9:11 of power play time in the first period, but only scored once. Wolski netted it at 13:05 during a two-man advantage.
Wolski, who has at least one point in 16 of the past 19 games (four goals, 15 assists), was above the left hash marks when he one-timed Stewart's pass behind Kiprusoff.
Wolski's goal and assist gives him four goals and seven assists in the past eight games. His 13 goals lead the Avalanche and are just one shy of his total of a year ago.
"I've been working hard," Wolski said. "Our line has jelled really well together and I think it's helped me gain some confidence."
The Avalanche outshot the Flames 20-6 in the period, and 14 of the shots came on five power plays.
"I think we were in the penalty box the whole first period," Flames captain Jarome Iginla said. "They were going to get their shots there. I think Kipper kept us in the game. We were standing around in the first period and got ourselves into bad penalty trouble."
The Avalanche played without forwards Milan Hejduk (knee) and Marek Svatos (groin), both of whom are listed as day-to-day.
Flames center Craig Conroy returned in a limited role after missing two games with a knee injury.
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