The Colorado Avalanche clinched its playoff spot last year on the final day of its season. The team prefers not to do that again.
Colorado can punch its ticket to the Stanley Cup Playoffs this evening as it hosts the Winnipeg Jets in the second-to-last game of the 2018-19 regular season and the final one at Pepsi Center. The Avs need a point or a loss by the Arizona Coyotes later tonight to secure their postseason berth for a second consecutive season.
"We need this badly. We can't rely on anyone to beat Arizona. We have to win this ourselves," said Avalanche forward Nathan MacKinnon. "I'm excited for the drop of the puck, and I'm excited for the whole game. I'm not looking past this one, no one is."
A point earned by sending the game past regulation would do the trick for Colorado, but that is not how the club is approaching the final meeting of the season against the Jets. The Avalanche wants to win and continue building on its strong play heading into the postseason.
Colorado has recorded points in nine straight contests (7-0-2), and its 16 points gained in that time are the most in the NHL (since March 17).
"We bring a lot of confidence. It's an exciting time, as a player and as a team, you want to play at this time," said Derick Brassard, who joined the club at the trade deadline on Feb. 25. "At the start of the year, you want a chance to win and hopefully we can get it done tonight."
Video: MacKinnon before Colorado hosts Winnipeg
The Avs reached the 2018 playoffs after defeating the St. Louis Blues at home in the final game of the season in a winner-take-all matchup. That game was a highlight of the campaign for the players, and they want to celebrate this evening's Fan Appreciation Night in a similar fashion.
Colorado is on a season-long, five-game win streak at Pepsi Center.
"We realize that we control our own fate, and we have no one to rely on other than ourselves. We're confident we can get it done," said veteran defenseman Erik Johnson. "We've been hot lately at home, so hopefully it can be fun to continue it. To clinch playoffs would be special in front of our fans again."
Video: Johnson on whats at stake versus the Jets
Winnipeg also has a lot to play for tonight as its battling for a Central Division title in the final days of the campaign. The Jets and Nashville Predators are tied with 96 points, but Winnipeg presently has the advantage by owning the tiebreaker. The St. Louis Blues are also in the hunt with 95 points.
Nashville and St. Louis are in action this evening as well, and the Jets could secure the division title if both the Predators (in regulation) and Blues (any fashion) lose.
"Winnipeg is going to be hungry," Johnson said. "They're going to be fighting for the division. If they can't win the division, they want to get home ice in the second spot. Lots to play for for them, and even more for us."
Video: Derick Brassard after Colorado's morning skate
While the Avalanche is on the verge of securing a spot in the Stanley Cup tournament, team captain Gabriel Landeskog said the squad needs to stay in the present. There is still work to be done against the division-rival Jets.
"I would be lying if I told you that we wouldn't like to clinch tonight. We want to get that done and move on and get ready for what is next," Landeskog said. "For us, it's important not to get too ahead of ourselves either, you got to stay in the moment and make sure we do whatever we can to get away with some points tonight. We know Winnipeg hasn't been happy with the way they've played lately. They're going to bring their best, and we just got to make sure that we match that and exceed their pressure."
There has been no lapse in Gabriel Landeskog's play since returning from an upper-body injury that had him out for nine games and three weeks during a critical time of the season.
Landeskog has points in each of the last three outings since his return, recording a goal and four assists.
"Gabe has been unreal since he's come back, and he's helped us get a win against Arizona, a big point against St. Louis and then he did a great job against Edmonton. He's been awesome," said Nathan MacKinnon.
Landeskog, who is third on the team in scoring with 74 points (34 goals and 40 assists), said he was confident that he could come back into the Avs' lineup and contribute in all facets like he was before getting hurt on March 7.
"I think anybody that is out of the lineup at any point of the season, they're going to put in a lot of hard work to get back and especially this time of the year," he said. "I wanted to make sure that I was ready to go by the time that I came back, not use any excuses for being out for an extended time or whatever and being rusty and things like that.
"Just watching the guys when I was out, it was really motivating and encouraging to see how they worked and encouraged me to get back faster and obviously work harder."
Video: Jared Bednar before the Avs host the Jets
GRUBAUER BACK IN
Goaltender Philipp Grubauer will get the start this evening for the Avalanche. He had started in a career-high eight straight contest from March 17 to April 1 before Semyon Varlamov guarded the pipes in the team's last game on Tuesday against the Edmonton Oilers.
"Look at the way he's played over the last 10 games or so, he's been amazing," said Colorado head coach Jared Bednar. "Varly did a great job for us last game coming in and giving Grubi a chance to rest. I expect to see the same type of game out of Grubi again. He's confident, he looks real good in goal. In all the game's he's played lately, he's given us a great chance to win."
In his last 13 outings, Grubauer has posted an 8-2-2 record, 1.39 goals-against average, .957 save percentage and three shutouts.
Mikko Rantanen continues to progress from his upper-body injury and has begun skating again. The forward took the ice before today's pregame practice and ran drills while wearing a red, non-contact jersey.
"He's back on the ice today, he's wearing gear today," said Bednar. "He was on yesterday. Doing a little bit more every day, but no timetable for his return."
Rantanen has been out since getting hurt on March 21 at the Dallas Stars and has been listed as day-to-day. He is second on the team in scoring with 87 points (31 goals, 56 assists) in 74 games this season.