TORONTO—The Colorado Avalanche is at a point of the season where the team knows it still has plenty of work in front of it.
Yes, the club is playing better. It has won three in a row to begin a seven-stop road trip, and there are a lot more smiles and upbeat personalities in the locker room. However, the reality is Colorado is still two games below .500 and six points out of a playoff spot.
The Avs will have their work cut out for them on the next four stops of the season-long trip, including tonight against an improved Toronto Maple Leafs club.
Toronto is 3-1 in its last four games and is coming off a tough 3-2 loss to the New Rangers on Sunday night after giving up the winning score in the final minute of regulation.
"They are playing really good hockey. We're going to respect them," Avalanche defenseman Tyson Barrie said of this evening's opponent. "I think it is easy for us to keep it going. I think we're motivated. We know where we sit in the standings and how important this road trip is. Pretty impressive to start 3-0, and we want to make it four."
Colorado is playing with a lot of confidence right now. The team's offense is averaging 4.33 goals per game on the road trip, and goaltender Reto Berra has been solid in-between the pipes. Berra has only allowed three pucks to get past him in the last three contests, and he currently leads the league with a 1.50 goals-against average and a .953 save percentage.
"I think we've played well. We've played some games that I thought we should have won, but we didn't," Barrie said. "I think we've been playing good lately, and Reto has been outstanding. We've been finding ways to score goals and [get] big goals."
The Avs are 2-6-1 in one-goal games this year, but they have started to find ways of turning close losses into victories. Avalanche alternate captain Cody McLeod said a lot of it has to do with staying focused on the task at hand.
"You just have to keep working." McLeod said. "We were playing some pretty good hockey before, but we weren't getting the wins. Now we're getting some breaks here and there, and for the most part we stuck to our game plan and things are working out."
Once again, the Avalanche needs to press the reset button and put its aim on the Maple Leafs. A victory tonight would give the club a chance to get back to an even record on Thursday in Pittsburgh.
"Those [previous victories] don't mean anything if we don’t keep playing well and getting wins," Barrie said. "Three-and-0 we can talk about all we want, but we could a better job in a lot of areas. We talked about it and we're going to continue to try and get better and keep this winning streak going."
The Avs have a 'one game at a time' mentality, and although it is cliché, so far it has worked on the trip. Sticking with that mindset will be key this evening.
Goaltender Semyon Varlamov took part it the team's morning skate on Tuesday and stayed out after the formal session was over to do extra work with goaltending coach Francois Allaire.
Head coach Patrick Roy said Varlamov is making progress in recovering from his groin injury, but he isn't about to set a timeline for a possible return to game action.
"He said it was a really good day. We'll see tomorrow," Roy said. "After today, [he'll let me know] how he feels tomorrow. If he feels good again, we'll put him on the ice again in Pittsburgh."
The team will travel to Pittsburgh after tonight's game and is scheduled to practice on Wednesday at the Consol Energy Center. The Avalanche plays the Penguins on Thursday.
Varlamov has watched the last two games with a suit and tie on after hurting his groin during morning skate last Tuesday in Philadelphia. He was placed on Colorado's injured-reserve list on Sunday, retroactive to Nov. 10.
John Mitchell did not skate Tuesday morning and will not play this evening against the Maple Leafs.
The Oakville, Ontario, native re-aggravated an oblique injury that kept him out of the lineup for four games earlier this month. He played in Thursday's contest in Boston and Saturday's in Montreal, but re-injured his oblique against the Canadiens.
Taking Mitchell's spot as the third-line center between Cody McLeod and Andreas Martinsen will be Chris Wagner, who joined the club Monday after being picked up on waivers from Anaheim on Sunday.
Mitchell also didn't practice on Monday and his status is listed as day-to-day.
NO. 36 TODAY, NO. 62 TOMORROW
Don't start buying your No. 36 Chris Wagner jerseys just yet. While the forward will wear the digits tonight, he will move into his more permanent number (62) for Thursday's game in Pittsburgh.
The reason for the adjustment is that the team couldn't be guaranteed that Wagner's new jersey would ship from Denver to Toronto on time due to the snowstorm that hit Colorado on Monday. The Avalanche travels with every organizational sweater and had extra ones to repurpose for short-term use. The permanent jersey should be waiting for him once the team arrives in Pittsburgh after this evening's contest.
Wagner wore No. 62 previously with the Ducks.
PROJECTED LINE COMBINATIONS
Mikhail Grigorenko—Nathan MacKinnon—Matt Duchene
Blake Comeau—Carl Soderberg—Jarome Iginla
Cody McLeod—Chris Wagner—Andreas Martinsen
Dennis Everberg—Ben Street—Jack Skille
Francois Beauchemin—Erik Johnson
Nick Holden—Tyson Barrie
Brandon Gormley—Nate Guenin
Scratches: Gabriel Landeskog (suspension), John Mitchell (oblique), Zach Redmond and Semyon Varlamov (IR, groin).