It doesn't necessarily take an expert to understand the current standings in the Western Conference. Two points behind the Nashville Predators for a wild-card playoff spot, the Colorado Avalanche can pull even with its Central Division rival with a regulation victory this evening against those same Predators.
The Avalanche has been building toward this moment for 41 games this season, a chance to be in the playoff picture with half the season still left to play. Colorado started the year 4-9-1, but the team has bounced back with an 11-4-2 record since the start of December and hasn't lost consecutive contests in regulation since Nov. 17-21 when it was defeated in three straight.
"This is a big game for both teams," said Avs forward Jack Skille. "I think they know in the room that it is a big game for them. It's a big game for us. The way we started out the season, we now have a chance to kind of redeem ourselves tonight."
Continuing to roll and climb the standings after tonight is key. Regardless of if Colorado wins or loses against Nashville, the 16 postseason teams won't be decided on Friday night but rather after Game No. 1,230 on Saturday, April 9.
"It's kind of a playoff game, knowing that we have 40 games to play after," said Avalanche head coach Patrick Roy. "It doesn't matter who wins tonight, there is a lot of work that needs to be done after that game. Certainly going to have to play the same way. I like our energy. I like our focus. I like the mindset that we have right now. We've been playing some good hockey, and we want to continue that way."
That postseason type of hype is something the players feel as well.
"It's like a playoff game, really. There is a lot on the line," John Mitchell said. "Certainly, we've been striving to get into the playoffs for a while, all season basically. This is a great opportunity for our team to take that final step and get there, and hopefully we can do that; hopefully we can press on and climb even further."
When the Avs and Preds met the first time this season on Dec. 12, Colorado was 10 points behind Nashville, which had 35 points. The Avalanche now has 43 points while the Predators hold 45 with a game in hand.
The Avs know exactly where they are in the standings, and how far they've come in recent weeks.
"The standings board is right in front of us every day," Mitchell said. "You walk by it countless times and look at it frequently. It's always in the back of your mind to look at those standings. You want to know where you are as a team and where the teams are ahead of you and maybe even some of the teams below you. I think it's important to look at those standings, know where you sit and where you want to get to."
A big reason for the Avalanche's turnaround has been its ability to pull out points in the third period. Entering the final stanza of regulation, the Avs have held onto leads, rallied for wins or forced extra time in 10 of their last 12 games.
Colorado is coming off a 4-3 overtime victory against St. Louis on Wednesday night, where it came back from a 3-1 deficit in the second period. Nathan MacKinnon tied the game with 1:29 seconds left in the third period and Gabriel Landeskog tallied the game-winner with 17 ticks remaining in OT.
"We're sticking to our game plan for a full 60 minutes," Skille said. "We're patient with it. We're not trying to force anything. We're just trying to go wave after wave at the other team. As long as we stick to that kind of game plan—stay cool, calm and collected the entire game and putting pressure on the other team, hunting down pucks on the forecheck, being smart all over the ice—eventually you're going to wear teams down. I think that's kind of been our recipe as of late."
Sometimes heading into a big game like tonight's can take a lot of energy out of a squad before the puck even drops because of the buildup to it. To combat that, players and coaches might try to take the more even-keeled approach and focus on the matchup like its any other contest on any other Friday.
Colorado is doing a bit of both. The Avs know it's an important game, but the main thing for them is that they stay the course and concentrate on the task at hand.
"The size of this game is going to make everyone a little extra sharp tonight, but at the same time we can't treat it any differently than we have the last few," said forward Matt Duchene.
"We're focused on keeping it rolling in a positive direction," Skille said. "We're just focused on that. We're playing as a team, as a group of five out there every single shift. When you do that, you tend to get better bounces. Even if we get some bad bounces tonight, we're going to stick with it and just try and be a solid hockey team."
The Avalanche will honor some of hockey's heritage this evening at Pepsi Center as the organization celebrates Museum Night, presented by Avaya. Tonight's festivities are part of the organization's 20th Anniversary Season in the Mile High City.
Several of the league's trophies, including the Stanley Cup, will be on display on the main concourse for fans to look at and take pictures with. The hardware includes the Conn Smythe, Hart, Calder, Clarence S. Campbell Bowl, Presidents', Jack Adams, Ted Lindsay, Art Ross, King Clancy, Lady Byng, Maurice 'Rocket' Richard, and William M. Jennings trophies.
Doors will open early at 5:30 p.m. to allow fans plenty of time to check out the trophies before the 7 p.m. game against the Predators.
Colorado's lineup will be the same from how it finished Wednesday's game against St. Louis. Alex Tanguay will be on the top line with Nathan MacKinnon and Matt Duchene, a spot that was held by Andreas Martinsen at the start of the game. Martinsen will play left wing on a combination with Mikhail Grigorenko and Jarome Iginla.
Alex Tanguay—Nathan MacKinnon—Matt Duchene
Gabriel Landeskog—Carl Soderberg—Blake Comeau
Andreas Martinsen—Mikhail Grigorenko—Jarome Iginla
Cody McLeod—John Mitchell—Jack Skille
Francois Beauchemin—Andrew Bodnarchuk
Nick Holden—Tyson Barrie
Nate Guenin—Zach Redmond