ST. LOUIS--It may be April Fools' Day but it's no joke that tonight's Central Division matchup between the Colorado Avalanche and St. Louis Blues has significant meaning for both clubs.
The Avalanche is looking to create more separation from the Arizona Coyotes in the race for the Western Conference's final playoff spot, while the Blues aim to continue their historic run and hunt down a Central Division title in the last week of the regular season.
"It should be a real one fun one because there is a lot on the line for both teams," said Avs head coach Jared Bednar following morning skate. "It's the last week of the season, so teams are dialing in for the playoffs."
Colorado has a one-point lead and a game in hand on Arizona for the second wild-card spot in the West and is coming off a 3-2 shootout win on Friday against the Coyotes. Arizona bounced back on Sunday afternoon with a 4-0 victory at home versus the Minnesota Wild.
The Avalanche is on a seven-game point streak (6-0-1) and has a 13-5-2 record in its last 20 contests.
"We got to just keep doing what we're doing. Take every game as an opportunity to play very well and to get better and put a great product out on the ice," said Colorado defenseman Ian Cole. "I think we can't look too far in the future, and we certainly can't look in the past. We're still not out of the woods as far as the playoffs go; everyone in this room knows it is still a tight race."
The Blues clinched their berth into the NHL's second season on Friday, but they aren't on cruise control in the final days of the 2018-19 campaign. The club has 92 points and can still win the Central Division with four games remaining. The Blues are two points behind the current division-leader Winnipeg Jets and second-place Nashville Predators, both of whom have 94 points, and have played one fewer game than the Preds.
St. Louis is just the seventh team in the NHL's expansion era to reach the postseason after ranking in last place at any point following New Year's Day (minimum 20 games), and it is the first club to do it since the 1996-97 Ottawa Senators. The Blues were ranked 31st in the league on Jan. 2 with a 15-18-4 record (34 points) but have since gone 27-10-4 (58 points).
"They're playing really good hockey right now," Bednar said of the Avalanche's opponent. "They have contributions from everyone in their lineup. I like their depth and their size, and their ability to hang onto pucks. On the flip side of that, I think we got to use our speed and our quickness to be tough to play against tonight."
St. Louis has won each of the first three games of the season series, although two of them came in overtime. The Blues tallied first in each contest, but the Avalanche has done a better job in that department as of late and the results have followed.
Colorado has scored the first goal in eight straight outings (6-1-1 record) and in nine of its last 10 contests (7-1-1). Overall, the Avalanche is 28-5-6 (.718) this year when finding twine first.
"When you have to score goals and playing from behind, you open yourself to counterattacks and those sort of things," Cole said. "When you're ahead, you don't need to do that and you can kind of do the opposite where you can still play a tight structure and still get those counterattack opportunities because of your tight, defensive structure.
"It is definitely something we wanted to focus on with our starts and have better starts. Not necessarily scoring goals, but establishing ourselves and establishing our game and we've done that."
Colorado aims to continue that trend this evening at Enterprise Center that begins a stretch of four games in six days.
"I'm sure they want home-ice advantage, and maybe throughout the first three rounds. It's going to be a good test," said Avs veteran forward Matt Calvert. "They're obviously on home ice, so we got to come out hard."
GRUBI'S GROOVY MONTH
Avalanche goaltender Philipp Grubauer is expected to get the start tonight against the Blues and build on one of the best netminding months in franchise history.
In 11 games (10 starts) during March, Grubauer recorded a .955 save percentage, the highest ever for the month and the second for any month during the season. Patrick Roy's .952 mark in March 2003 was previously the highest for the third month of the calendar year, while Peter Budaj's .957 save percentage in December 2009 is the highest in Avalanche/Quebec Nordiques history.
"The way Grubi's been playing, he's given us a chance to win every night," Bednar said. "He's making all the saves he is supposed to make. He's picking up saves with your jaw dropping a little bit on certain nights. I think if you look at any team that is doing well in the standings right now, they're getting really good goaltending, and we're certainly no different. It's something that you have to have this time of the year to win hockey games, and he's supplying that for us."
Grubauer has started the last seven games, a career-high stretch for him, and has posted a 6-0-1 record, 1.55 goals-against average and .957 save percentage in that time.
SERIES WRAP UP
Colorado will play its 11th and final back-to-back of the season tonight and will wrap up the set on Tuesday night in Denver against the Edmonton Oilers.
The Avalanche is 5-3-2 in the first game of consecutive-night contests and has a 4-3-3 record in the second outing.
This evening is Colorado's fourth and final meeting of the season against St. Louis, and the Avs' second-to-last contest versus a Central Division opponent. The Avalanche plays the Winnipeg Jets in the home finale and Game No. 81 on Thursday.