A saying that has been spoken more and more by Colorado Avalanche players recently is "keeping climbing the ladder." In simpler terms, it means keep getting better every day, keep climbing in the standings.
The Avs will have a big opportunity this evening to continue that upward journey and their push for a spot in the Stanley Cup Playoffs as they take on the Dallas Stars at 6:30 p.m. MT at American Airlines Center. Colorado and Dallas enter tonight's divisional matchup tied in the standings with 53 points and both sit just four points out of a wild card position, though the Stars are technically one spot ahead as they presently hold the first tiebreaker.
"This is the most exciting game of the year for us so far," said Avalanche center John Mitchell. "In terms of the team that we are playing, the standings, the overall significance of it. This is a big game for both clubs, and I'm sure we will both be ready for it."
Tonight is the first of two games in Texas and the first of three this month against the Stars for the Avalanche. Overall, Colorado will play eight division opponents this month, with all them currently holding a playoff spot or climbing the same ladder as the Avs.
"What I like is we have our destiny in our own hands," said head coach Patrick Roy. "It's up to us to play some good hockey. If at some point you want to be part of the playoffs, you are going to have to have a stretch like this where you're playing really, really good hockey. I'm pleased with that way we have been playing in the last 20 games now, where I feel that the team is very alert. The team is very focused, play with good energy out there. That is how we would want to start our game tonight."
In a way, the Avalanche and the Stars are near images of each other and not just because the clubs have the same amount of points. Both squads had expectations of returning to the playoffs this year but began the season slowly before picking up their play as of late. They also play a run-and-gun type of game that can feature wide-open skating and plenty of scoring opportunities.
"We want to be a fast-skating team, and they are obviously a fast-moving team as well," Mitchell said. "We kind of play similar styles in the sense that we want to push the flow, push the pace and get in on that forecheck, possess the puck down low and use our speed whenever we have the ability or the time to do it."
Though they play similar styles, Colorado has had more of the success in the head-to-head matchups. The Avalanche has won six of the last seven games the past two seasons against the Stars, including both contests this season in Denver, 5-2 on Nov. 29 and 4-3 on Jan. 10.
"Knock on wood. This is a team I feel we match well with," Roy said. "We had a lot of success against them last year. The two games we played at home [this year], we got two wins. We need to continue the same way. This is going to be a fast-paced game.
"This is a team where you don't want to be in the box all night because their power play is running really well. They have scored a lot of power-play goals. It is going to be very important for us to be very disciplined, but at the same time continue to play really well defensively and allow [goaltender Semyon Varlamov] to see shots and protect him."
Despite being ranked 19th in the league, the Stars have started to find their stride on the power play. They have gone 7-for-16 with the man advantage in their past three games, including scoring four power-play goals last Saturday at Winnipeg.
The Avs know that they have a tough task ahead of them as they look to slow down Dallas' strong power-play attack, both literally and figuratively.
"They have a lot of options," said Colorado forward Marc-Andre Cliche, a penalty-kill specialist for the team. "We talked before that they are really good on the rush, and they have scored a lot of goals on the rush. I think all that because they have so much speed. We just have to be aware of who is on the ice and where they are."
While a win or loss tonight won't make or break the Avs' season, there does seem to be a sense of urgency with the team that they are entering an important stretch of their season.
Avalanche captain Gabriel Landeskog said the club knows it will play a lot of Central Division opponents in the coming weeks and will have a great opportunity to make a dent in its goal of earning a playoff berth.
"These are the exciting ones," Landeskog said of game against Dallas. "Even though we have 32 games to go, we want make a push here and we want to get on a roll. You never want to leave it up to the last couple of games. You want to keep inching closer when you can, especially in division games. They are four-point games, and they are as important as they could be. These are the games that we can control."
First up for the Avs is to get some space between them and the Stars on the 'ladder.'