Like a driver on the road, the focus of the Colorado Avalanche is what's ahead of it. However, the team is also well aware of its surroundings in the Western Conference standings.
Having passed the Nashville Predators for the second wild-card spot, the Avs now aim to hunt down the Minnesota Wild, which is just five points ahead, while creating distance from the Preds (one point behind) and Winnipeg Jets (two points behind).
"We caught Nashville. Our next goal is to catch Minny and then the next team after that," said Nathan MacKinnon. "Obviously Nashville and Winnipeg are right there, and there are other teams right in the mix for the wild-card spot, but we want to finish top three in our division, have a spot like that. For us, it's important to keep our heads down and keep working and keep getting points."
The Avalanche looks to continue its climb in the standings tonight as it begins a two-game road trip in Columbus against the Blue Jackets. The team closes the trek at Winnipeg on Monday.
Colorado is coming off a 3-0 victory over the New Jersey Devils on Thursday, a game that the club needed to win after the players and head coach Patrick Roy said were two sub-par performances in losses against the Chicago Blackhawks (6-3) and Tampa Bay Lightning (4-0).
"We were not happy about our last two games, especially the way we defended," Roy said of the defeats to the clubs that were in the Stanley Cup Final last June. "I thought we did a lot of good things out there at home against the Devils. We were much better in our battles. We had better sticks in our D-zone, and when we do those things obviously we play a good game. It was nice to win that game, but tonight is another challenge for our team. When you start your first game on the road, and we have a lot of road games coming up this month, it's important to start with a good win."
The Avs look to mimic what they did versus the Devils and earlier this month when they picked up wins against the Los Angeles Kings, St. Louis Blues and Predators, all of which were in a playoff spot at the time.
"It's important; the focus, the intensity and the realization that we let this thing slip, we may not get another chance to sneak back in," said Matt Duchene, who is celebrating his 25th birthday today. "Those (other) teams can start winning a lot of games. You look at last year, our record wasn't much different at this point last year, but we were way out. There is more parity in our conference, which has helped us but we know how fast that can change.
Every team in the Western Conference is still in the hunt for a postseason spot, and the Colorado players knows they can't let games and points slip away while other clubs keep winning.
"You have to kind of be in playoff mode right now," said John Mitchell. "I know it's mid-January, but these are big points, big games for us. We can't take any team lightly, that's for sure."
MacKinnon said it shouldn't be hard for the team to stay focused on maintaining a postseason position.
"I think we're more motivated then ever. I can feel it in the room," he said. "We want to make the playoffs. From where we were at the beginning of the season to where we are now, it's amazing how fast this turnaround is. I remember we were nine points out at one point of the season, and now we're right back in the mix."
NO CHANGES TO THE LINEUP
The same 20 players that participated in Colorado's win against New Jersey will also be on the ice this evening in Columbus.
That means 20-year-old defensemen Chris Bigras and Nikita Zadorov and 23-year-old goalie Calvin Pickard will remain in the lineup. The two young blueliners were recalled from San Antonio of the American Hockey League on Wednesday.
Bigras made his NHL debut versus the Devils, while Zadorov played in his first contest with the Avalanche since Nov. 5.
"We wanted to create a spark and were hoping these guys would help us, and they played well," Roy said of Bigras and Zadorov. "It was the first game for Chris, I could tell he was a bit nervous. I'm curious to see how he is going to respond against a good hockey team. Even if [the Blue Jackets] are last in their conference, it's a good hockey team. It's a big team. There is some physicality in their game. It will be interesting to see how the two of them answer tonight."
Pickard will make his second consecutive start after making 27 saves for his first NHL shutout on Thursday. Semyon Varlamov is slated to be in the crease on Monday for the divisional matchup at the Winnipeg Jets.
"He deserves it," Roy said of Pickard starting. "He played really well. He was solid, made some good saves. His two starts were great games. He had a great game in San Jose. He had a good one last game against Jersey. It will allow us to rest Varly. Varly will be back in the net against Winnipeg, and he should be ready."
Defensemen Andrew Bodnarchuk and Nate Guenin and forward Mikhail Grigorenko will once again be the scratches. Chris Wagner, who was a healthy scratch for 14 games before returning to the lineup versus the Devils, will remain at center between wings Jarome Iginla and Andreas Martinsen.
Alex Tanguay—Nathan MacKinnon—Matt Duchene
Gabriel Landeskog—Carl Soderberg—Blake Comeau
Cody McLeod—John Mitchell—Jack Skille
Andreas Martinsen—Chris Wagner—Jarome Iginla
Francois Beauchemin—Nikita Zadorov
Nick Holden—Tyson Barrie
Chris Bigras—Zach Redmond