Coming off a successful two-game road trip, the Colorado Avalanche returns to Denver for a big weekend slate. The team will face off twice against the Central Division-rival Chicago Blackhawks, once at Pepsi Center on Saturday afternoon and again at United Center the following night.
It will be the final clashes between the two clubs this season as the Avalanche has generated a 1-1-1 mark so far against the Blackhawks. The Avs won both contests against the Hawks at Pepsi Center last year and owns a 27-13-6 all-time record at home (since 1995-96).
Colorado now has 78 points and sits eighth in the Western Conference after two victories over Central Division opponents this week. On Tuesday, the Avs beat the Minnesota Wild 3-1 and followed that performance up with another 3-1 win over the Dallas Stars on Thursday.
The Avs presently own the tiebreaker in the standings over the Arizona Coyotes, who also have 78 points, and both are just one point ahead of the Wild. Chicago is also jostling for position in the wild-card race, sitting four points behind Colorado and Arizona.
"I like the urgency and the intensity that we're playing with," said head coach Jared Bednar. "It just looks like it means a lot to our guys right now. The buy in is real strong, no passengers throughout our lineup. Everyone's contributing any way that they can."
After the Avs returned from their road trip, nine members took part in an optional practice at Family Sports Center on Friday, including six forwards, two defensemen and goaltender Semyon Varlamov. One person who did not participate in the session is Mikko Rantanen, who left Thursday's game to be evaluated after a hit along the boards.
"He's getting some work done right now and he'll be re-evaluated this afternoon," said Bednar at Friday's practice.
When asked if Rantanen could play on Saturday, Bednar remarked, "anything's possible."
Video: Coach Jared Bednar talks Mikko Rantanen's status
Rantanen, who ranks second on the team in scoring, has produced a career-high 87 points (31 goals, 56 assists) this year. His 33 power-play points are tied with teammate Nathan MacKinnon for sixth-most in the NHL.
The Avalanche has won three straight games and is 5-1-0 in its past six outings against Central Division rivals. Despite the team's strong play, Colorado is continuing to put its focus on the upcoming matchups with eight games remaining in the regular season.
"Right now, we're in a position where every single game is the most important," said Sven Andrighetto. "We already basically forgot about what happened the past road trip and we're focusing on Chicago coming up tomorrow and Sunday, obviously, but we'll take one game at a time."
The mentality in the room is to focus in the moment, and to take every shift seriously.
"It's shift-by-shift," defenseman Ryan Graves said. "You got to worry about your job that shift, and how the game's going and make sure you're doing the right things. You're not looking too far ahead, you're not cheating. If you're doing those things, things just start coming our way."
Defenseman Ryan Graves on the road trip: "We were playing the right style hockey that suits our game. We were skating, we were playing simple, we were trusting each other. Some emotional hockey, we had some big blocks, and things like that you need this time of year, so we got to keep that rolling in the next few games."
Video: Ryan Graves chats after the Avs' optional practice
Right Wing Sven Andrighetto on the team's effort: "We work hard every single day. We're trying to improve ourselves and as a team every single day whether it's at a game or practice session. Every other team is doing the exact same, so you have to take a step forward every single day, if you can. And I think it's been going the right direction as of right now. We definitely want to keep this trend going."
Video: Sven Andrighetto before the home-and-home vs. Chicago