– The Colorado Avalanche
are about to begin what they hope will be a successful stretch run to the playoffs, starting with Tuesday night's visit to Edmonton.
The Avalanche won nine of 10 games from mid-December through the first week of January to climb back into the Western Conference playoff race, but went 3-5-1 in the final nine games before the NHL All-Star break to fall one point behind eighth-place Minnesota with 31 games to play.
"We had a real good month in December," Avalanche coach Joe Sacco said after practice Monday. "We were able to take advantage of our home games. January was a grind and I think we were able to come out of it somewhat successful. I think the guys for the most part have responded well; they played hard and we battled our way back into the thick of things. We have a very tough and competitive conference.
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"I think what you’ll see now in the post All-Star break is what we need to see from our team is another gear. Now we need to take it to the next gear because it picks up a notch -- just like in the playoffs when it picks up a notch."
The Avalanche reached the All-Star break having played 51 games, tied with Carolina for the most in the League, so Sacco and his players welcomed having five days off following a disappointing 3-2 loss to the Wild on Jan. 24 -- a game in which the club didn't play particularly well.
"It was an opportunity for us to recharge, to make sure that we get our mindset in the right place here moving down the stretch," Sacco said of the mini-vacation. "I think it will be beneficial, but we're a young team. It's not that we needed much of a break. I expect our legs to be going and I expect our young players to be fresh. Maybe for a couple of the older guys it was an opportunity to get more rest and to be ready for a battle down the stretch."
Unlike last season, when the Avalanche were ravaged by injuries and won just five of their final 36 games -- there were two 10-game winless streaks -- the team is healthy, with the exception of third-year center Matt Duchene
. He hasn't been on the ice since suffering an injury to his left knee in a Dec. 29 game against Phoenix, and there's no timetable for his return.
"Right now, he's still out indefinitely," Sacco said. "Hopefully, he'll be on the ice sometime in the near future, but it's still indefinite and we'll see from there."
Duchene's absence was especially felt on the offensive side of the ice during the team’s recent slide; Colorado totaled 17 goals in the 3-5-1 stretch before the break and was limited to two goals or fewer in seven of them.
The return of left wing Peter Mueller
, who played in seven games before the break after missing 41 to recover from post-concussion problems, should boost the offense, as would the return to form of captain Milan Hejduk
, who has 12 goals overall and just three in the past 25 games.
"I'd definitely like to have more (scoring) chances, better chances from prime scoring areas," said Hejduk, who shares the franchise record for consecutive seasons with 20 or more goals (11) with Joe Sakic
. "I guess I have to work more in the traffic areas and get the chances there. But it seems like the goals are more spread out between the guys. Maybe that's not a bad thing; it doesn't have to be one line or two lines that have to provide the scoring."
Center Paul Stastny
(13 goals, 17 assists) has started to pick up the pace with two goals and five assists in the past six games. Center Ryan O'Reilly
is having a career year with a team-leading 14 goals and 36 points, and rookie left wing Gabriel Landeskog
(10 goals, 16 assists and team best plus-12) has been solid at both ends of the ice.
Center - COL
GOALS: 13 | ASST: 17 | PTS: 30
SOG: 120 | +/-: -6
The Avalanche have made improvements on defense, in goal and on special teams, but the power play has only connected for seven goals in the past 19 games while the penalty killers have permitted 10 goals in that period.
"Special teams are always important," Stastny said. "The games have been so close and a lot of games are decided by special teams, especially the one-goal games."
The Avalanche have gone 17-7-2 in one-goal games – 11-2 in overtime, which includes a 7-0 mark in shootouts. Nine of the team's past 13 wins were decided by one goal.
Goaltending has been a major factor in the close decisions. Semyon Varlamov
, who will start Tuesday in Edmonton, has shown flashes of brilliance but has been inconsistent while posting a 14-15-1 record with two shutouts, a 3.00 goals-against average and .899 save percentage.
, who was signed as a backup and mentor for Varlamov, is enjoying an exceptional season with a 12-8-1 record with one shutout, a 2.12 average and .921 save percentage. He started four consecutive games and six of seven before the All-Star break.
"We have 31 games left and we should be pretty excited about them," Giguere said. "It's a do-or-die situation now. We can talk about every game being a four-point game. I think we're fortunate that we're in this situation, that we can compete and have a chance to be in the playoffs. Now it's up to us. There are probably six or seven teams fighting for two or three playoff spots.
"I'm happy that we're in the picture. We worked our way back to this picture and now we have a fighting chance. It's in our hands. You can see that and be scared or you can be excited about it. I think as a group we're excited about that."