Colorado was just outside the Western Conference playoff picture the last time Paul Stastny took the ice. With a bit more ground to make up in the standings, the last-place Avalanche are sure to benefit from his return.
The third-year center is expected to be in the lineup Tuesday night when the Avalanche continue their season-high six-game trip against the Atlanta Thrashers.
Stastny hasn't played since Dec. 23, when his right forearm was fractured by a slap shot in the final minute of regulation during an overtime victory against visiting Phoenix.
That win pulled Colorado (28-31-1) within one point of Minnesota for the eighth and final postseason spot in the conference. But the Avalanche have gone 11-15-0 without one of the game's best young players, slipping to last in the West with 57 points - seven behind the eighth-place Wild.
"It's a double-edged sorta thing," Stastny said Thursday. "When the team is struggling, it's tough to watch. I think when the team is doing good, it's tough to watch knowing that you're not helping, but at least the team is winning."
Stastny topped the Avalanche with 21 assists and 31 points when he went down, but forwards Ryan Smyth, Milan Hejduk and Wojtek Wolski have filled the void by combining for 65 points in his absence.
Smyth, Colorado's leader with 49 points, and Hejduk, who has a team-high 21 goals, had their respective three-game point streaks snapped in Sunday's 5-2 loss at Carolina. Wolski, though, extended his streak to four by scoring his 14th in the Avalanche's first defeat in four games.
The Avalanche are 5-3-1 with a tie all-time against Atlanta (21-33-6), which is 14th in the East and likely to miss the playoffs for the eighth time in nine seasons.
Stastny had a goal and two assists in the teams' most recent meeting - a 5-2 road win on March 11, that improved Colorado to 3-1-0 with a tie in Atlanta.
The Thrashers have dropped four straight at home, where they are a league-worst 9-17-2. They return to Philips Arena following a 2-1-1 road trip that was capped by Saturday's 3-1 defeat to San Jose.
Atlanta will conclude a stretch of six consecutive games against the West. It is 4-7-2 versus the opposite conference, but wouldn't use unfamiliarity as an excuse after falling to the Sharks.
"It's no different for them, (since) they don't see us," coach John Anderson said. "It's the same thing. There are no secrets in this league. ... You have to make adjustments, which our guys did."
Ilya Kovalchuk had his season-high seven-game point streak (nine goals, four assists) snapped Saturday, but teammate Bryan Little scored to give him four goals and three assists during a four-game run of his own.
Kovalchuk leads Atlanta with 30 goals and 63 points, while Little is second on the team with 25 goals and fourth with 41 points.
Peter Budaj is expected to start against the Thrashers, but he's lost three straight games and is 0-7-1 with a 3.12 goals-against average in his last eight on the road.