The Colorado Avalanche began the year with a regular-season goal of winning its division, and tonight's game could determine if that objective will be met.
The Avs and Vegas Golden Knights meet for the eighth and final time this year in a battle between the top two clubs in the West Division this evening at T-Mobile Arena. The Knights currently lead the division with 80 points, which is also tied for the most in the NHL.
If the Avalanche wins the matchup, the squad will move within two points of the Golden Knights for the top spot with a game in hand. If Vegas gets the victory, it will secure the first seed in the west as well as the Presidents' Trophy as the league's top team in the regular season.
"The reason that we want home ice more so than anything is because it was a goal that we set out for at the start of the season to try to give ourselves every advantage," said head coach Jared Bednar. "Whether that advantage is big or small we'd like to be able to take advantage of that in any way we can come playoff time, and I think it's always good to push for short-term goals and long-term goals.
"We've played 53 games now, and we put ourselves in a position to achieve that goal and if we can do that, I think it's fantastic. Whichever team gets it it's a feather in their cap, and then you are moving onto the postseason. Again, I don't think it's the be-all, end-all, but I think if you can accomplish goals like that it says something about your team."
Colorado holds a 3-3-1 mark against Vegas on the season and is 1-2-0 at T-Mobile Arena. The Avs fell 5-2 in the last meeting on April 28 against the Golden Knights, which sports a 4-3-0 record in the season series.
Vegas is 8-2-0 in its previous 10 outings and is coming off a back-to-back sweep against the St. Louis Blues on Friday and Saturday. The Avs also swept a consecutive-night set in their last outings, doing so versus the Los Angeles Kings this weekend.
Going into tonight's matchup, both the Avalanche and Golden Knights control their own destiny.
"I expect them to be the exact same as us, pushing to try to win the hockey game and trying to get home ice. Obviously, that's been the goal from us all year and I am sure from them as well," Bednar said. "It's an important tool to have on your side come playoff time. We wouldn't be in this position if we hadn't taken care of business in the last few games, and we've done a nice job with that and we are still in striking distance and control our own destiny here as far as where we are going to end up seeding. I expect our team to play real hard."
Video: Coach Jared Bednar before Avalanche at Golden Knights
Colorado will get some offensive fire power added back to its lineup for the outing as Nathan MacKinnon is set to play after missing the past two games with a minor lower-body injury.
MacKinnon leads the Avalanche in scoring and ranks sixth overall in the NHL with 65 points, registering 20 goals and 45 assists in 47 games. He's expected to return to his previous spot as the center on a line with Gabriel Landeskog and Mikko Rantanen.
Without MacKinnon, Colorado won both of its games at the L.A. Kings on Friday and Saturday by 3-2 scores, marking a franchise-record fourth consecutive back-to-back set that the Avs have swept.
"I mean when you get a top player in the league back, that's definitely going to benefit your team," said Landeskog. "I am proud of the way we worked in L.A., they are almost different hockey games because of the systems they play, and we were able to really put our heads down and get dirty and get to work and grind out four points… It was big points, and it's good to have Nate back. I am glad he is feeling good enough to play, and it's important for us that he's healthy."
Video: Avs captain Gabe Landeskog on the big game vs. Vegas
Colorado isn't looking at tonight's outing as a must-win, but the way the team plays in the matchup is important heading into the postseason, regardless of how the standings race plays out.
"The way we approach this one is go out and play and compete and have that same mindset we've had the last few games," said Landeskog. "This time of year, we have to crank up the intensity, really make sure our habits are strong going into playoffs and the compete level has to be up and that's the way we are going to have to approach this one. We know they are an opportunistic team. We know they've got a lot of fire power and they can defend well. We know it's going to be a tight match, and we are excited for it no doubt."
Head coach Jared Bednar said earlier this week that defenseman Samuel Girard (lower body) and forward Brandon Saad (lower body) could possibly return before the end of the regular season. Both have now resumed skating in Denver, and Girard is looking like he will be the first to return.
They have been joined by rookie D-man Bowen Byram, who has been out since suffering an upper-body injury on March 25. Forwards Matt Calvert (upper body) and Logan O'Connor (lower body) are both out long term, with O'Connor recently having surgery.
"Girard and Saad are skating along with Byram, who is on the ice some days and not others," said Bednar. "I think Girard is probably the guy that's closest to return. Saad is back home skating and working out, he's still got a little bit of time left to go. Calvert and OC are still long term, so they are not in the foreseeable future for us being ready to get back into the lineup."
The Avalanche has never played on May 10.
Tonight's game ends a five-game road trip for the Avs, which was the club's longest continuous trip and the last road journey of 2020-21. Colorado is 16-9-2 (.630) on the road this season.
The Avalanche defensemen have combined for 139 points (26 goals, 113 assists) the most of any team.
Colorado has scored the first goal in 35 of its 53 games, the most of any team. The Avalanche's 28 wins when scoring first (28-5-2) rank second behind Vegas (30).
The Avs rank among the NHL's top 10 in power play (seventh, 23.1 percent) and penalty killing (eighth, 82.4 percent). Only once in the past 15 years has Colorado finished among the top 10 in both categories (2017-18).
Bednar on the team's emotions heading into the contest: "It's a focus thing for me. If our team is focused and we play with the right level of determination and competitiveness and your focused, your intensity will be good, your execution will be good. I don't want us to be scared of the moment. I want them to go out and play our game and dictate the pace of play and the way that the game is played, but the game has to be played with emotion and passion and fire and I think that that's something that I don't try to diminish on our team or curb from the way we approach the game. I want our guys to play that way as long as we are staying disciplined. I think the more energy and passion you bring to the game, the better."
Gabriel Landeskog on big games in the regular season: "I mean listen, it's a big game but it's not by any means the biggest we've played in the regular season. If you zoom out, we are clinched. Obviously we want to win the division don't get me wrong but I think Game 82 against St. Louis at home a few years ago was a little bit bigger than this one. At that point we were playing for our playoff lives."
Pierre-Edouard Bellemare on the matchup: "I think it's been marked on the calendar for a while. We knew that it would come down to this one so we are really excited. It's a big game, I think it's two really decent teams so I think we are going to go at it. It's pretty exciting."
Video: Pierre-Edouard Bellemare before Avs at Knights