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Avalanche look to make up ground against St. Louis

by Rick Sadowski

DENVER -- The Colorado Avalanche believe they are better prepared to handle the St. Louis Blues on Saturday at Pepsi Center than they were in two earlier meetings, both losses in November.

"In my opinion, we're a different team than the last two times we played them," Avalanche coach Patrick Roy said. "We're playing better defensively and we made some adjustments in our system. I think it's good timing for us to see where we are against these guys. They made a couple trades, they have a new goalie [in Ryan Miller]. I think it's going to be interesting to see what we can do better. We'll see where we are."

Colorado (41-17-5) sits third in the jam-packed Central Division, three points behind first-place St. Louis (42-14-6) and one point behind the second-place Chicago Blackhawks (37-13-14).

"This is a big one," Avalanche center Matt Duchene said. "We've had this one marked on our calendar for a while."

The Blues won the first two games between the teams rather handily, 7-3 in St. Louis on Nov. 14 and 4-1 in Denver on Nov. 27. They'll meet one more time, April 5 in St. Louis, after Saturday.

The Avalanche have won four games in a row and rookie right wing Nathan MacKinnon has a 13-game scoring streak, an NHL record for an 18-year-old originally set by Wayne Gretzky in 1979-80. MacKinnon has five goals and 13 assists in the streak.

The Blues have won three in a row with Miller in goal. He's stopped 58 of 63 shots since his acquisition from the Buffalo Sabres.

"We've done really well against them because we've made them uncomfortable," Blues coach Ken Hitchcock said of the Avalanche. "That's the thing for us, we've got to continue to make them uncomfortable so they can't get on that swagger game that they're capable of. I don't know what it is, but they play with a lot of pizzazz and risk and they get away with it every time.

"They're hard to play against because they don't pay for their mistakes. Their goalie [Semyon Varlamov] sweeps up their mess and they don't come off the way they play. They get down 2-0 and it doesn't even faze them. I know everybody in the West is going, 'I'm not sure we would like that team [in the Stanley Cup Playoffs].' "

The Avalanche have been one of the surprise stories of the season after finishing last in the Western Conference in 2012-13 and next-to-last in the NHL standings.

"Who would have thought that the Avalanche would be in this position?" Roy said. "It's a great situation to be in. When we started the season we had an objective to surprise the world of hockey. That's one of the first things I remember saying. This is a good test for us, it's a great situation to be in. By winning this game we have a chance to be even closer to them. Our guys are very excited and we need to remain focused on what we need to do."

Here are the projected lineups for the Avalanche and Blues:


Alexander Steen -- David Backes -- T.J. Oshie

Jaden Schwartz -- Patrik Berglund -- Vladimir Tarasenko

Brenden Morrow -- Derek Roy -- Steve Ott

Magnus Paajarvi -- Maxim Lapierre -- Ryan Reaves

Jay Bouwmeester -- Alex Pietrangelo

Barret Jackman -- Kevin Shattenkirk

Ian Cole -- Roman Polak

Ryan Miller

Brian Elliott

Scratched: Carlo Colaiacovo, Chris Porter

Injured: Jordan Leopold (ankle), Vladimir Sobotka (leg)


Ryan O'Reilly -- Matt Duchene -- PA Parenteau

Gabriel Landeskog -- Paul Stastny -- Nathan MacKinnon

Maxime Talbot -- John Mitchell -- Jamie McGinn

Cody McLeod -- Marc-Andre Cliche -- Patrick Bordeleau

Jan Hejda -- Erik Johnson

Andre Benoit -- Nick Holden

Nate Guenin -- Tyson Barrie

Semyon Varlamov

Jean-Sebastien Giguere

Scratched: Cory Sarich, Ryan Wilson

Injured: Alex Tanguay (hip surgery)

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