DENVER -- Simple question: How good are the Colorado Avalanche this season?
"I think we're on par with Dallas," center Nathan MacKinnon said Friday from Coors Field where the Avalanche play the Detroit Red Wings in the 2016 Coors Light NHL Stadium Series game Saturday (8 p.m. ET; NBC, SN, TVA Sports 2).
The Avalanche are 14 points behind the Stars entering play Friday. Dallas is first in the Central Division with 82 points in 62 games; Colorado, with 68 points in 63 games, is in position to be the second wild card into the Stanley Cup Playoffs from the Western Conference.
It looks like a stretch to say the Avalanche are on par with the Stars, but MacKinnon has a reason for his opinion.
He brought up the players, including himself, right wing Gabriel Landeskog, center Matt Duchene and defenseman Tyson Barrie. He didn't mention defensemen Erik Johnson or Francois Beauchemin, right wing Jarome Iginla, center Carl Soderberg or goalie Semyon Varlamov.
That's the Colorado core, and it's good. Is it as good as Dallas' core with Jamie Benn, Tyler Seguin, Patrick Sharp, Jason Spezza, John Klingberg, Johnny Oduya, Alex Goligoski and a tandem in net of Antti Niemi and Kari Lehtonen?
MacKinnon clearly thinks so.
And what about the records? Since Dec. 1, the Avalanche are 23-13-3 for 49 points while the Stars are 19-13-6 for 44 points. Colorado is 2-0-1 with a 12-8 edge in goals in three games against the Stars this season.
"I think we have the same kind of dynamic as Dallas," MacKinnon said. "I think we can be up there."
OK, prove it.
The Avalanche have 19 games remaining, including the Stadium Series game Saturday, to solidify a playoff position and be considered a legitimate threat to the Stars, Chicago Blackhawks, Los Angeles Kings, St. Louis Blues, San Jose Sharks, Nashville Predators and surging Anaheim Ducks in the Western Conference.
"I feel like we're a team that can compete in the playoffs," Duchene said. "It doesn't matter where you finish, just as long as you're in. That's kind of how we're feeling."
They're not there yet, not a lock, but that shouldn't be surprising or alarming to the Avalanche or anyone really.
In reality, this goes back two years, to when the Avalanche were an overachieving 112-point team. Every metric available save for the obvious, wins, suggested they weren't that good, including the advanced metrics aimed at measuring possession and scoring chances.
The hockey community at large felt the Avalanche were due for a regression last season. It was as bad as it gets. They dropped 22 points, finished with 90, and didn't sniff a playoff berth virtually all season. The Winnipeg Jets, the second wild card from the West, had 99 points.
The Avalanche blame themselves for taking things for granted.
"I think we put the cart before the horse last year," Duchene said. "I think we thought we were going to just step on the ice and be dominant, and we weren't. We forgot to put the work in early on, we dug ourselves a hole, and it was a miserable year."
This season started out very much the same, except so much was different, the players say.
"Even keel," MacKinnon said. "Having a bad start this season wasn't as rough on us because we all learned from last season."
And still, the Avalanche were 3-6-1 in October and 9-14-1 through November. They were again a poor possession team. Their goaltending, which was their rock in 2013-14, was bad. Their defense was worse. They allowed three or more goals in 15 of their first 24 games.
"We lost a lot of games late in periods, blew a lot of leads," MacKinnon said. "We took no games to overtime to start the season, we just lost them late. But we managed to pull it together and we've been good lately."
That they did is a testament to their maturity, and the gradual improvement in all facets of their game, particularly their ability to win one-goal games.
Colorado was 2-7-1 in one-goal games through November. It is 14-2-3 in one-goal games since.
Varlamov had a 3.28 goals-against average and .887 save percentage in 14 appearances through the end of November. In 28 appearances since, he's reduced his GAA to 2.70 and raised his save percentage to .915.
"Our goalie has been outstanding for the last little while, which really helps," forward Alex Tanguay said. "Our defense has been improving, and offensively our young guys are growing. You have to allow that growing process. They're the guys that are going to carry this team.
"We're improving and now it's up to us to prove where we stand. We all believe in ourselves, but now is the time where you have to step it up. Now is our time to go out and get it."
The Avalanche still have plenty of flaws, such as allowing way too many shots on goal per game (tied for 28th with 31.7). Their special teams are still average (13th in power play at 19.3 percent, 21st in penalty kill at 79.7 percent). Their shot attempts percentage to measure possession is still paltry (League-worst 43.7 percent).
But despite it all, the Avalanche are in position to get into the playoffs because they've matured enough this season and have been good enough when they needed to be. It's led to a team-wide belief that they belong, that they're a legit contender.
"Any team that's in the playoff mix is a good hockey team," MacKinnon said. "We're good."