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Critical two points at stake for Avalanche, Wild

by Rick Sadowski
DENVER -- The Colorado Avalanche and Minnesota Wild are running neck-and-neck in a race for the eighth and final playoff berth in the Western Conference heading into tonight's meeting at the Pepsi Center.

The teams are separated by one point -- the Avalanche have 54 points in 50 games, the Wild 53 points in 48 games -- and both are hoping to start building some momentum heading into the NHL All-Star break before the season's stretch run.

A couple of veterans will be in goal with Jean-Sebastien Giguere making his fourth consecutive start for the Avalanche and Niklas Backstrom getting the nod for the Wild. Backstrom has played just once in Minnesota's previous six games, but he missed two of those because of illness.

"They're all big games for us, but obviously we want to go into the break with a nice feeling, kind of how we did in the Christmas break a few weeks ago," Giguere said this morning.

The Avalanche have gone 13-6-1 in the past 20 games and 10-2-0 in the past 12 on home ice, but are coming off a tough 3-2 loss in Anaheim on Sunday when they outshot the Ducks 45-18.

The Avalanche and Wild split two earlier meetings this season, both at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul. Backstrom outdueled Giguere 1-0 on Nov. 17 and Giguere returned the favor in a 4-2 win on Dec. 26.

The Wild are winless in their past 11 road games (0-9-2), one short of the franchise record set in 2003-04, but Minnesota has gone 8-1-2 in the past 11 games at the Pepsi Center.

"They're a tough team," said Avalanche right wing Peter Mueller, who is from Bloomington, Minn. "We know what's at stake; these two points are huge. It was a tough game in Anaheim, but we're focusing on playing a full 60 here and trying to get the two points. We've got to be ready right from the start."

Neither team has had a great deal of success against Northwest Division opponents, with the Wild posting a 7-8-1 record and the Avalanche a 2-9-0 mark.

"Everybody looks at the standings, everyone's human and you're always checking to see where you are, but at the end of the day there's a certain number that you have to hit as far as reaching points," said Avalanche coach Joe Sacco, who needs one win for 100 in his NHL career, all with Colorado. "What that number is, everyone can argue. It's such a tough conference and these games are all so big and so important. You try to focus on smaller increments. We work on five-game segments. It helps us keep our focus on the smaller picture, not the big picture. Tonight's the start of a new segment."

Defenseman Ryan Wilson will return to the Avalanche lineup after missing two games with a groin injury. He replaces rookie Stefan Elliott, who has 3 assists in his past 11 games.

Except for Backstrom, the Wild is going with the same lineup they used in Saturday's 5-2 win over Dallas. Josh Harding stopped 23 shots against the Stars to end the Wild's four-game winless streak.
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