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Posted On Friday, 02.10.2012 / 5:35 PM

By Rick Sadowski  - Correspondent / - At the Rink blog

Sacco expects high-tempo game between Avs, Canes

DENVER -- Two teams that have been hard-pressed to score goals face off tonight when the Colorado Avalanche and Carolina Hurricanes meet at the Pepsi Center.

The Avalanche broke through in a big way Tuesday with a 5-2 win against Chicago, but have scored two goals or fewer in 10 of their past 13 games and are averaging 2.4 goals per game overall.

"We had been struggling to score goals on a consistent basis, but we always talk about the process," Avalanche coach Joe Sacco said this morning following his team's optional skate. "When you do good things during the course of the game -- if you do them consistently -- sooner or later the chances that you get are going to go in. That finally happened against Chicago. I thought we played a pretty complete game."

The Hurricanes, who are averaging 2.5 goals per game, have been held to two goals or fewer in seven of their past nine contests but have managed to post a 4-2-3 record in that stretch because of solid goaltending by Cam Ward and efficient penalty-killing.

But Sacco expects a high-paced game tonight, similar to the one his team played against the Blackhawks when the clubs combined for 60 shots and plenty of scoring chances.

"They're a fast team, they're a young team, and they play with energy," Sacco said of the Hurricanes. "It looks like they try to play a very aggressive game where they're chipping pucks in and trying to chase pucks down. It should make for a good game with a lot of pace and a lot of tempo, two young teams that like to push the pace and like to skate."

While the Avalanche remain in the Western Conference playoff hunt with 57 points -- three points behind eighth-place Phoenix -- the Hurricanes have 50 points and are a dozen points behind eighth-place Toronto in the East despite posting a 6-2-3 record since Jan. 12. Carolina has gone 12-12-6 since Kirk Muller replaced Paul Maurice as head coach on Nov. 28.

"They found themselves behind the eight-ball at the start of the year, but they're definitely playing much better now," Sacco said. "You've got two teams looking for points, so it should be a good game."

The Hurricanes will be bucking history tonight. The franchise has gone 0-7-2 in Denver since Feb. 9, 1996, when the Hartford Whalers defeated the Avalanche 3-2 in overtime at since-razed McNichols Sports Arena. It was the first season after the Quebec Nordiques moved to Colorado and were renamed the Avalanche.

Avalanche goalie Jean-Sebastien Giguere, who was a first-round pick of the Whalers in 1995, will start against the Hurricanes, who are making their first appearance in Denver since Oct. 23, 2009. Giguere on Tuesday ended a personal four-game winless streak (0-3-1) in which he permitted a total of six goals but received little in the way of offensive support.

"If you look at the previous games, our problem was scoring goals," center Ryan O'Reilly said. "We had a good backcheck (against Chicago) with all the guys coming back and it created a lot of two-on-ones and odd-man rushes for us, and I think that's one reason why we did get our offense going. Our scoring definitely gained a little confidence from that. We're going to need that down the stretch. Having a game like that, even without any power plays, was a big thing for us and something to build on."

Sacco reunited struggling left wing David Jones with center Paul Stastny and right wing Milan Hejduk, and the line combined for 2 goals and 4 assists, with Jones collecting 2 goals and 1 assist.

"We played a lot together last year and we had some success," said Jones, who has 12 goals in 45 games after scoring a career-high 27 goals last season. "Those guys make it so easy to play with them. They're real good with the puck and they draw guys to them. They'll find you anywhere on the ice, so it's just a matter of being ready and being ready to shoot."
Posted On Thursday, 02.02.2012 / 4:36 PM

By Rick Sadowski  - Correspondent / - At the Rink blog

Avs get another crack at beating division foe

DENVER -- If the Colorado Avalanche miss the playoffs for the second year in a row, coaches and players will have to look no further than at an abysmal record against Northwest Division opponents.

The Avalanche have lost 11 of 13 games against teams in the division this season, including two of three meetings with the Minnesota Wild, tonight's opponent at the Pepsi Center.

"It would be nice to know where we'd be if we had a better record in our division," Avalanche coach Joe Sacco said this morning.

The Pepsi Center has been a friendly place for the Wild, who broke an 11-game winless streak here with a 3-2 victory on Jan. 24 and have posted a 9-1-2 record in their past dozen visits.

"We have to prepare ourselves better," said Jean-Sebastien Giguere, who will start in goal for the Avalanche. "I think most of those losses that we had, we didn't play for 60 minutes. We didn't have a good start and we shot ourselves in the foot. The last game against Minnesota is a prime example. They outworked us for most of the game and you're not going to win any games in this League if you don't work hard. We should be ready and excited about these games."

The Avalanche have lost three games in a row (all by 3-2 scores) to fall into 10th place in the Western Conference, one point behind an eighth-place Wild team that has played two fewer games. Colorado and ninth-place Dallas each have 54 points, but the Stars have played three fewer games.

"We have to start winning some games," Giguere said. "We can't just keep losing and think there are 28 or 27 more games. We have to put some points in the bank, because those games that you are losing now are going to end up hurting you in the end."

After playing nine of 12 games on the road in January, the Avalanche will split 12 games in February between home and the road. Tonight's game is the first of a four-game homestand.

"We have to try and capture some of the momentum that we've lost over the last couple of games," said Sacco, who needs one win for 100 in his NHL coaching career, all with Colorado. "I like the fact that we have a four-game homestand. It's been a long time since we've had any sort of homestand. You have to take care of business at home, and that's what we'll be looking to do."

The Wild, meantime, is looking to put Tuesday's stunning 5-4 loss to Nashville behind it. The Predators scored four goals in the final 10 1/2 minutes to wipe out a 4-1 deficit.

"We've all been through games like that, in this League or other leagues," said Wild left wing Dany Heatley, who has 3 goals and 3 assists in a three-game point-scoring streak. "We're in too tight of a race to let that linger and bother us."

Wild coach Mike Yeo has already turned the page, pointing out his team has won two of the past three games and played well in all three, with the exception of the last 10 minutes against Nashville.

"If we want to dwell on anything, it should be the fact that we should have won the game," he said.

Sacco said he didn't feel the need to discuss the Wild's meltdown with his players, since the Avalanche are coming off a poor performance in Tuesday's 3-2 loss in Edmonton.

"We're in the same boat," he said. "The Edmonton game was a game that we obviously wanted to win, just like Minnesota wanted to beat Nashville. I know the circumstances might be a little bit different, but we should have as much of a sour taste in our mouth as they should. We have to make sure we're ready to bring our 'A' game tonight."

The Wild has experienced plenty of success in Denver largely because of goalie Niklas Backstrom. He's gone 8-2-1 at the Pepsi Center with two shutouts, a 2.12 goals-against average and .934 save percentage. Backstrom is 5-1-1 in the past seven games, permitting one goal or fewer in five of them.

"We need to get out of this skid here and make sure we start putting points in the bank," said Avalanche defenseman and Minnesota native Erik Johnson. "If you're going to be successful, you have to take care of your divisional games. We haven't done that to date, and we've talked about it a lot and this is one of those games tonight."
Posted On Tuesday, 01.24.2012 / 4:46 PM

By Rick Sadowski  - Correspondent / - At the Rink blog

Critical two points at stake for Avalanche, Wild

DENVER -- The Colorado Avalanche and Minnesota Wild are running neck-and-neck in a race for the eighth and final playoff berth in the Western Conference heading into tonight's meeting at the Pepsi Center.

The teams are separated by one point -- the Avalanche have 54 points in 50 games, the Wild 53 points in 48 games -- and both are hoping to start building some momentum heading into the NHL All-Star break before the season's stretch run.

A couple of veterans will be in goal with Jean-Sebastien Giguere making his fourth consecutive start for the Avalanche and Niklas Backstrom getting the nod for the Wild. Backstrom has played just once in Minnesota's previous six games, but he missed two of those because of illness.

"They're all big games for us, but obviously we want to go into the break with a nice feeling, kind of how we did in the Christmas break a few weeks ago," Giguere said this morning.

The Avalanche have gone 13-6-1 in the past 20 games and 10-2-0 in the past 12 on home ice, but are coming off a tough 3-2 loss in Anaheim on Sunday when they outshot the Ducks 45-18.

The Avalanche and Wild split two earlier meetings this season, both at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul. Backstrom outdueled Giguere 1-0 on Nov. 17 and Giguere returned the favor in a 4-2 win on Dec. 26.

The Wild are winless in their past 11 road games (0-9-2), one short of the franchise record set in 2003-04, but Minnesota has gone 8-1-2 in the past 11 games at the Pepsi Center.

"They're a tough team," said Avalanche right wing Peter Mueller, who is from Bloomington, Minn. "We know what's at stake; these two points are huge. It was a tough game in Anaheim, but we're focusing on playing a full 60 here and trying to get the two points. We've got to be ready right from the start."

Neither team has had a great deal of success against Northwest Division opponents, with the Wild posting a 7-8-1 record and the Avalanche a 2-9-0 mark.

"Everybody looks at the standings, everyone's human and you're always checking to see where you are, but at the end of the day there's a certain number that you have to hit as far as reaching points," said Avalanche coach Joe Sacco, who needs one win for 100 in his NHL career, all with Colorado. "What that number is, everyone can argue. It's such a tough conference and these games are all so big and so important. You try to focus on smaller increments. We work on five-game segments. It helps us keep our focus on the smaller picture, not the big picture. Tonight's the start of a new segment."

Defenseman Ryan Wilson will return to the Avalanche lineup after missing two games with a groin injury. He replaces rookie Stefan Elliott, who has 3 assists in his past 11 games.

Except for Backstrom, the Wild is going with the same lineup they used in Saturday's 5-2 win over Dallas. Josh Harding stopped 23 shots against the Stars to end the Wild's four-game winless streak.
Posted On Wednesday, 01.18.2012 / 5:40 PM

By Rick Sadowski  - Correspondent / - At the Rink blog

Pepsi Center homecomings for Mueller, Fleischmann

DENVER -- It will be a homecoming of sorts for Peter Mueller and Tomas Fleischmann tonight when the Colorado Avalanche and Florida Panthers meet at the Pepsi Center.

Mueller will play his first home game since opening night after he missed 41 consecutive games to recover from concussion-like symptoms. The 23-year-old right wing, who didn't play at all last season after suffering two concussions within a five-month period, returned to the Avalanche lineup last Thursday in Nashville and played in all three games of the road trip.

Fleischmann signed a four-year, $18 million contract with the Panthers as an unrestricted free agent on July 1 after collecting 8 goals and 13 assists in 22 games with the Avalanche last season. Acquired from Washington in a Nov. 30, 2010 trade in exchange for defenseman Scott Hannan, Fleischmann was a valuable offensive weapon but had to sit out the final 36 games after being diagnosed with blood clots in his lungs.

Fleischmann, 27, was put on medication and regained his health, and he's tied with Stephen Weiss for second in scoring on the Panthers with 15 goals and 19 assists in 44 games.

"He's a great kid and I enjoyed working with him last year," Avalanche coach Joe Sacco said this morning. "He had some good production when he was with us; he had some good games when he was with us. Unfortunately, he got sidetracked by the injury there. Obviously, we went in a different direction in the offseason, but I'm glad to see that he's doing very well. I'm happy for him."

Sacco also has been pleased with the play of Mueller, who is still seeking his first point but had 11 shots on the three-game trip. He'll skate on a line with left wing TJ Galiardi and center Paul Stastny tonight.

"Good progression every game," Sacco said. "He feels more comfortable out there, and you can see that his energy level is increasing every time he steps on the ice. He's generated some scoring chances for himself and for his linemates. I think he's headed in the right direction. I know that he wants to get (a goal), and maybe feel a little better about himself. But I really like the way he's played, the way he's moving his feet. He's involved in the game physically, had three or four hits last game (Monday against Phoenix), so he's not shying away from the physical side of it.

"He's a good kid and he's gone through a long battle over the last couple of years. The guys in the room certainly are pushing for him and we're pushing for him and pulling for him and I'm hoping that he stays healthy and contributes to our team."

Mueller is excited to play before the home fans and is hopeful of returning to the form he displayed in 2009-10 when he had 9 goals and 11 assists in 15 games following his March 10, 2010 acquisition with Kevin Porter from Phoenix in exchange for Wojtek Wolski.

"I feel great. I definitely feel better than I did in the beginning of the year (when he played in the first three games)," Mueller said. "It seems like every game I've been getting more comfortable, and my ice time has been getting increased, which is nice. I'm still looking for that first (goal), but it's going to come sooner or later."

Tonight's game will be Mueller's first at the Pepsi Center since Oct. 8, when he had three shots in the Avalanche's 3-0 loss to Detroit.

"It's been quite some time," said Mueller, who is wearing a helmet with special padding and a tinted visor because bright arena lights can be difficult for concussion victims to handle. "I'm excited. It's going to be good to be in front of the home crowd and to hear the noise and just to be on the home ice. It's still a little weird waking up and knowing that you're going to play. It's a good feeling. I'm excited to be coming to the rink and being a part of the everyday situation."

Surgery for Jovo:
The Panthers announced today that defenseman Ed Jovanovski will undergo hand surgery on Thursday at Doctors Hospital in Coral Gables, Fla., and will be sidelined indefinitely. Jovanovski, 35, was injured in a first-period fight with Boston's Daniel Paille on Monday. Keaton Ellerby, who has 2 assists in 15 games, is expected to take Jovanovski's place against the Avalanche.

Posted On Wednesday, 01.18.2012 / 4:16 PM

By Rick Sadowski  - Correspondent / - At the Rink blog

Projected lineups for Panthers, Avs

DENVER -- These are the projected lineups for tonight's game between the Florida Panthers and Colorado Avalanche at the Pepsi Center:

Tomas Fleischmann - Stephen Weiss - Kris Versteeg
Mikael Samuelsson - Marcel Goc - Tomas Kopecky
Shawn Matthias - John Madden - Michal Repik
Krys Barch - Mike Santorelli - Matt Bradley

Jason Garrison - Brian Campbell
Keaton Ellerby - Erik Gudbranson
Dmitry Kulikov - Mike Weaver

Jose Theodore will start in goal with Scott Clemmensen the backup.

The Panthers will be without defenseman Ed Jovanovski, who had hand surgery today, for up to two months. Left wing Marco Sturm (concussion) als is out.  Left wing Sean Bergenheim (groin), right wing Jack Skille (shoulder) and left wing Scottie Upshall (hip) are day to day.

Gabriel Landeskog - Ryan O'Reilly - Milan Hejduk
T.J. Galiardi - Paul Stastny - Peter Mueller
Chuck Kobasew - Jay McClement - Daniel Winnik
Cody McLeod - David Van Der Gulik - David Jones

Ryan Wilson - Erik Johnson
Kyle Quincey - Stefan Elliott
Shane O'Brien - Ryan O'Byrne

Jean-Sebastien Giguere will start in goal, with Semyon Varlamov the backup.

The Avs are without left wing Matt Duchene (knee) and defenseman Jan Hejda (groin).
Posted On Tuesday, 01.10.2012 / 5:00 PM

By Rick Sadowski  - Correspondent / - At the Rink blog

Avs lose Johnson, O'Brien, but get Wilson back

DENVER -- Just when it looked like the Colorado Avalanche were starting to get healthy, their defense corps has taken a double hit with the losses of Erik Johnson to a hand injury and Shane O'Brien to a knee injury.

Neither will play tonight when the Avalanche faces the Nashville Predators at the Pepsi Center in the opener of a home-and-home series that resumes Thursday in Music City.

The good news for the Avalanche is that defenseman Ryan Wilson will play for the first time since he suffered a concussion in a Dec. 6 game in Vancouver. The 6-foot-1, 207-pound Wilson was arguably the team's best defenseman when he was injured on a hit from behind by Maxim Lapierre that didn't result in a penalty or supplemental discipline.

"It's a great feeling," Wilson said this morning. "Coming to the rink all those days knowing that you're not playing, it gets to you. You're just waiting for this one moment to get back in the lineup. I felt good on the ice this morning and hopefully I can carry it into the game."

Wilson is a big hitter, but he's only been assessed 24 penalty minutes in 28 games. He's been a solid two-way defenseman with 1 goal, 13 assists and a plus-5 rating.

"He was playing physical and he was chipping in offensively, which is a bonus," Avalanche coach Joe Sacco said. "Things were just going well for him. I think it all stems from him being involved in the game physically. I think he's certainly established a reputation that when he's on the ice to have your head up. That's what we look for from Ryan, to make sure that he keeps the opposition on their toes and doing it with discipline and not crossing the line. He's been real good at judging that."

Wilson said he isn’t nervous about getting hit again. He suffered a facial cut and blurred vision that lasted a couple of days after his face slammed into the glass on Lapierre's hit.

"No, it happens," he said. "You play so many games and you're going to take a couple hits here and there. It's something that happened and I'm not thinking about it. I'm just going to go out there and play. I expect to get hit."

The Avalanche went 10-5 without Wilson and have won nine of the past 11 games, with both losses coming in the second game of a back-to-back situation.

"It was awesome," Wilson said. "It was great to watch the guys go out there and play so well. You want to get back in the lineup and help the team out, but when they're playing that good you feel like they might not need you at the time. It was good to get my rest and now hopefully I can help us continue."

Johnson and O'Brien were injured in Saturday's 4-0 loss in St. Louis. Johnson skated this morning and will accompany the team for Thursday's game in Nashville, but O'Brien will be sidelined for an indefinite period. Matt Hunwick, a healthy scratch the previous five games, will suit up tonight.

"It's unfortunate that we lost two guys that have been contributing, but that's why we have eight defensemen," Sacco said.

The Predators have had the Avalanche's number lately. They swept the four-game series last season by a combined score of 17-8 and have won five consecutive meetings between the teams.

Nashville is on a 10-4 roll and is seventh in the tightly-packed Western Conference with a 22-15-4 record and 48 points. Colorado is 10th with a 23-19-1 record and 47 points.

"They're a hard-working team and they skate well," Avalanche captain Milan Hejduk said. "Every year it seems like they make the playoffs. It's a tough team to play against. If we want to make the playoffs, we have to do well against them."

The Avalanche will only play three home games in January after playing 19 at the Pepsi Center in November and December.

"Maybe it's a little better than having a stretch of six or seven games in a row at home," Hejduk said. "When they're spread out, maybe you can get ready for it more because it's so unusual this month to play at home. We'll see."
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