Its only exhibition outing before starting its Stanley Cup run is now in the past, but the Colorado Avalanche is still in a position to try out some different things during its upcoming games in round-robin play.
That opportunity is the benefit of finishing the regular season in the top four in the Western Conference and receiving a bye into the first round of the playoffs. Colorado will be competing for the top spot in the West with three other pool teams, while eight clubs will be playing in best-of-five series to keep their seasons alive.
The Avalanche opens its three-game round-robin set on Sunday at 4:30 p.m. MT against the St. Louis Blues.
"It's not life and death… I think it's just three extra games that you have to get your team playing the best they can possibly play before playoffs start. We may need it, we might not. Maybe we come out and play great right away," said head coach Jared Bednar following the team's practice. "There's always going to be things that we want to improve, and extra games and extra time, it's usually an advantage."
One of the aspects of the game that Bednar says he will continue to evaluate during Colorado's qualifier is in net. Goaltenders Philipp Grubauer and Pavel Francouz will both see starts during the round-robin after the two keepers split the exhibition on Wednesday against the Minnesota Wild.
"I thought both goalies played well, they may have been two of our top three players," Bednar said of contest, a 3-2 win for the Avs. "So going into this, we should try and keep those guys going and playing in game situations as much as we possibly can. The luxury of playing a round-robin and not jumping into a series right away allows us to do that."
However, one thing that Bednar made clear heading into the qualifiers against the Blues, Dallas Stars and Vegas Golden Knights is that he and the team want to win those matchups. A pre-season goal for the Avalanche was to gain home-ice advantage for the playoffs, and while they fell five percentage points short of finishing first in the Central Division and conference during the regular season behind St. Louis (.662), that carrot is still available for the taking.
Video: Jared Bednar talks about his team after practice
The top four seeds in the West for the Stanley Cup Playoffs will be set based on each other's record in round-robin play, with tiebreakers being decided based on regular season points percentage.
"To me, the home-ice advantage, it's still an advantage," Bednar said. "Last change and being able to chase some matchups that you like and avoid ones that you don't is an advantage. I think that is still our goal. We have three games to play and have an opportunity to achieve our goal, which was to get home ice in the West. If we can accomplish that, we're going to try and do it."
There will certainly still be a feeling out period in that first round-robin matchup for both the Avs and Blues, who lost 4-0 to the Chicago Blackhawks in their exhibition. Colorado made some sloppy mistakes against Minnesota--its first game in more than four months--but the club made some mid-game adjustments and started cleaning up things as the outing progressed.
Video: J.T. Compher, Nikita Zadorov and Philipp Grubauer
Finding that level of high intensity against a division rival will be paramount on Sunday for the Avalanche.
"I didn't think we were ourselves the other night," Bednar said. "It's hard to replicate the intensity that you're going to need to win hockey games in the round robin and in the playoffs in an exhibition game. We did adjust some things and most of them were defensive details, compete level, habits, whatever you want to call it. The fundamentals of our game from a defensive standpoint were not very good the other night, and especially early in the game. I thought we got better and had some more jump and our execution improved, and in turn we gave up less scoring chances.
"We'll have to be much better come Sunday."
Wednesday's tune-up was as much needed for the players as it was for the coaches. Colorado held five intrasquad scrimmages before traveling to the Edmonton hub city last Sunday, but it's hard to simulate competing against an opponent that isn't your teammate in practice.
"For us, exhibition games are good for us to get the chemistry going," said forward J.T. Compher. "We were a little sloppy at first, so just making sure the execution and the X's and O's, but overall it was good to get the intensity back and feel the competitive nature of being out there. Our room is really excited to be back here and playing hockey, and we're feeling really good about our group."
The Avs held their third practice at Terwillegar Arena on Thursday, with defenseman Samuel Girard returning to the group session as a full participant. Girard didn't practice on Tuesday and didn't play in the exhibition game as well, though Bednar wasn't too concerned with the 22-year-old's status for the upcoming playoffs.
One player that didn't skate on Friday was forward Andre Burakovsky, but he should be available for the club's game on Sunday against the Blues.
"He was off the ice today but expected back on tomorrow," Bednar said.
Colorado is expected to practice again on Saturday.