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At the Rink: Blue Jackets at Avalanche

by Rick Sadowski

DENVER -- While the Colorado Avalanche are still having trouble scoring goals, their improvement on defense has resulted in a 6-2-2 run they'll test against the Columbus Blue Jackets at Pepsi Center on Sunday.

The Avalanche (15-15-8) have allowed one goal or fewer in five of those games, and they've given up more than three goals once in this stretch.

"We're playing very well defensively," coach Patrick Roy said. "We've been giving less and less goals, which is very good for us. Now we just need to get some confidence offensively and I think we'll be in a good position."

The Avalanche have won two consecutive games, are in position to sweep a three-game homestand, and match their longest winning streak of the season, modest as it is.

It isn't a coincidence that Colorado has been better in the defensive end since goalie Semyon Varlamov and defenseman Brad Stuart returned from injuries.

Varlamov is 3-1-0 with a shutout, a 1.68 goals-against average, and .935 save percentage after missing six games with his third groin injury of the season. Stuart has four assists and a plus-2 rating in eight games since returning from a hamstring injury that cost him 16 games.

Stuart has gradually been playing more minutes after missing so much time. He logged 25:15 Friday in the Avalanche's 2-1 shootout win against the Edmonton Oilers after playing 23:38 Wednesday in a 4-3 overtime win against the Philadelphia Flyers.

"It's big," Roy said of Stuart's return. "He's playing really well. He's helped Zach [Redmond] or Nick [Holden], depending on who his partner is. He's been very solid for us. He's capable of taking a lot of responsibility."

Stuart will skate with Holden for the third consecutive game Sunday.

"It takes a few games to get back into the swing of things," Stuart said. "I feel good and the team's been playing better. Definitely earlier in the year we were struggling defensively. We made some changes (switching from man-to-man defense to zone) and it seems everyone has grasped the concept pretty well and we've been a lot better. We're still at times struggling to score goals, but this isn't a 6-5 or 5-4 NHL anymore; it's 2-1 and 3-2. Those are the type of games you have to win."

The Blue Jackets (16-17-3) didn't skate Sunday morning after losing 6-3 to the Arizona Coyotes on Saturday to open a four-game road trip. They went 10-1-1 in their previous 11 games.

Curtis McElhinney is expected to start in goal after relieving Sergei Bobrovsky in the third period Saturday. He stopped all three shots he faced.

Here are the projected lineups:


Scott Hartnell - Ryan Johansen - Jeremy Morin

Matt Calvert - Brandon Dubinsky - Corey Tropp

Nick Foligno - Alexander Wennberg - Jack Skille

Sean Collins - Michael Chaput - Jared Boll

Jack Johnson - David Savard

Kevin Connauton - James Wisniewski

Fedor Tyutin - Dalton Prout

Curtis McElhinney

Sergei Bobrovsky

Scratched: Adam Cracknell, Cody Goloubef, Jordan Leopold

Injured: Artem Anisimov (torn biceps), Cam Atkinson (shoulder), Brian Gibbons (knee), Nathan Horton (back), Boone Jenner (back), (Mark Letestu (abdomen, groin), Ryan Murray (knee)


Gabriel Landeskog - Matt Duchene - Borna Rendulic

Alex Tanguay - Ryan O'Reilly - Jarome Iginla

Nathan MacKinnon - John Mitchell - Daniel Briere

Maxime Talbot - Marc-Andre Cliche - Cody McLeod

Jan Hejda - Erik Johnson

Nate Guenin - Tyson Barrie

Brad Stuart - Nick Holden

Semyon Varlamov

Reto Berra

Scratched: Zach Redmond

Injured: Patrick Bordeleau (fractured kneecap), Jamie McGinn (back surgery), Ben Street (hand), Ryan Wilson (shoulder), Jesse Winchester (concussion)

Status report: Rendulic will move from right wing on the Avalanche's fourth line to a line with Landeskog and Duchene. "I like his speed and his size," Roy said. Talbot will replace him on the fourth line with Cliche and Talbot.

Who's hot: Johansen has two goals and four assists in a six-game scoring streak. ... Foligno has one goal and two assists in a three-game scoring streak.

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