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Colorado Avalanche vs. Ottawa Senators @NHLdotcom
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GAME: Colorado Avalanche (38-18-12-5) at Ottawa Senators (38-21-9-5).

TIME: Thursday, 7:30 p.m. EST.

The Colorado Avalanche and Ottawa Senators only meet once during the regular season. They could be seeing each other again in June.

The Avalanche and Senators, two of the NHL's top contenders for the Stanley Cup, look to improve their playoff standing in their respective conferences when they meet for the first time in nearly a year.

After struggling at the end of last month and into March, Colorado has won four of its last six to build its once-dwindling lead in the Northwest Division back up to five points over Vancouver. The Avs, though, are coming off a 4-2 loss at Montreal on Tuesday night.

Colorado had a four-game winning streak snapped despite Rob Blake scoring and Chris Gratton getting his first goal in four games with the Avs since being acquired from Phoenix.

The Avalanche scored only once on 17 shots in the first period as they were repeatedly shut down by Montreal goalie Jose Theodore, who finished with 29 saves.

"(Theodore) was really good," Avalanche captain Joe Sakic said. "He made some huge saves for them at the end. We had our chances. Everybody worked pretty hard on both sides and unfortunately they won the game."

The Avs are three points behind Detroit for first place in the Western Conference and home-ice advantage throughout the NHL playoffs. Colorado, however, is one of the NHL's top road teams and has the best road mark in the West.

The Senators are locked in a tight battle for the Northeast Division and Eastern Conference titles. Ottawa is tied with Toronto for second in the division with 90 points, three behind Boston. The Senators are four points behind conference-leading Philadelphia.

To stay competitive in those races, Ottawa needs to improve its play quickly after losing for the third time in four games Tuesday night, 5-2 to Minnesota.

Ottawa couldn't slow down the Wild's Marian Gaborik, who had three goals and two assists as the Senators completed a 2-3 road trip with their second straight loss.

"We wanted to try and salvage the trip with a win, but we got behind the eight-ball early," Senators center Mike Fisher said. "Defensively, we're not playing too great right now. We're making some mistakes, and when we do, teams are scoring."

Marian Hossa got his 33rd goal of the season late in the second period for Ottawa, and Bryan Smolinski cut Minnesota's lead to 4-2 midway through the third.

Ottawa played without second-leading scorer and captain Daniel Alfredsson, who sat out with a bruised thigh. His status for this contest is uncertain.

STANDINGS: Avalanche - 93 points, 1st place, Northwest Division. Senators - 90 points, 2nd place (tied), 3 PB, Northeast Division.

TEAM LEADERS: Avalanche - Milan Hejduk, 35 goals; Alex Tanguay, 54 assists; Sakic, 82 points; Peter Worrell, 158 PIM. Senators - Hossa, 33 goals and 76 points; Alfredsson, 45 assists; Chris Neil, 171 PIM.

SPECIAL TEAMS (through March 16): Avalanche - Power play: 21.6 percent (71 for 328), 3rd in NHL. Penalty killing: 84.2 percent (272 for 323), 13th. Senators - Power play: 22.2 percent (76 for 342), 2nd. Penalty killing: 83.0 percent (259 for 312), 21st.

GOALTENDERS: Avalanche - David Aebischer (30-16-9, 4 SO, 2.08 GAA); Tommy Salo (18-18-6, 3, 2.54). Senators - Patrick Lalime (23-21-7, 3, 2.34); Martin Prusek (14-5-2, 3, 1.91).

2002-03 SEASON SERIES: Senators, 1-0-1.

LAST MEETING: March 25; 2-2 tie. At Ottawa, Tanguay scored the tying goal with 10.2 seconds left off a pass from Forsberg, and Patrick Roy stopped 37 shots for the Avalanche.

ROAD/HOME RECORDS: Avalanche - 20-5-7-4 on the road; Senators - 22-7-5-4 at home.

Associated Press
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