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Detroit Red Wings vs. Colorado Avalanche @NHLdotcom
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GAME: Detroit Red Wings (43-20-11-2) at Colorado Avalanche (38-20-13-5).

TIME: Thursday, 8 p.m. EST.

The Western Conference title is still up for grabs. A home-and-home series between the Detroit Red Wings and the Colorado Avalanche could go a long way toward settling the matter.

The archrivals open a pivotal two-game set when the Avs host the Wings in the first of the teams' final two meetings of the regular season.

Colorado has gone winless in its last four games (0-3-1), but trails Detroit by just five points for first place in the West. The Avalanche are also still focused on closing out the Vancouver Canucks in the Northwest Division, but have a chance to cut the Wings' lead to one point by Saturday night.

However, Colorado has been one of the NHL's best road teams this season. That could decrease the urgency for the Avalanche to pass the Wings for the West crown.

Colorado may be satisfied to secure the division title and continue to get healthy. The Avs took a major step toward that goal Tuesday night, as star center Peter Forsberg returned to the lineup and had an assist in a 2-2 with Chicago.

The Avs jumped out to an early 2-0 lead in Forsberg's first game in a month, but gave up two third-period goals and settled for the draw with the last-place Blackhawks. Colorado clinched a playoff spot with the point.

"It's something we've got to learn to play with, a 2-0 lead in the third period," said Forsberg, who was back after missing 17 games with a groin injury. "We kind of stopped playing, and they came back. We played pretty solid for 40 minutes and gave it up in the end."

Colorado's inability to put Chicago away was due in part to its sputtering offense. The Avalanche have scored only six goals during their four-game winless streak, and leading goal-scorer Milan Hejduk has been stuck on 35 for seven games.

The Avalanche outshot Chicago 43-30 - 11 by Joe Sakic - but Michael Leighton made 41 saves, including five in overtime.

The Red Wings have also slumped somewhat of late, falling to 1-2-1 in their last four with a 5-2 defeat at San Jose on Tuesday night.

Jonathan Cheechoo scored two goals and Evgeni Nabokov stopped 37 shots for the Sharks, who like the Avalanche have 94 points and lead their division.

Pavel Datsyuk and Jiri Fischer scored for the Red Wings, who have clinched the Central Division.

Detroit outshot San Jose 39-20 and has taken 96 shots in its last two games but lost both, allowing 13 goals in the process.

"Nothing is going our way," coach Dave Lewis said. "There's no explaining this. We're having some breakdowns. We out-chanced them, but that didn't give us any goals."

Making matters worse for Detroit, top goalie Curtis Joseph tweaked his oft-injured ankle during the pregame skate Tuesday. Backup Manny Legace had another shaky game in a last-minute start, allowing five goals on just 20 shots.

Joseph's status for Thursday's game - as well as Saturday's rematch at Joe Louis Arena - is uncertain.

STANDINGS: Red Wings - 99 points, 1st place, Central Division. Avalanche - 94 points, 1st place, Northwest Division.

TEAM LEADERS: Red Wings - Robert Lang, 29 goals, 49 assists and 78 points; Brendan Shanahan, 102 PIM. Avalanche - Hejduk, 35 goals; Alex Tanguay, 54 assists; Sakic, 85 points; Peter Worrell, 177 PIM.

SPECIAL TEAMS (through March 23): Red Wings - Power play: 20.3 percent (61 for 301), 5th. Penalty killing: 86.5 percent (257 for 297), 1st in NHL. Avalanche - Power play: 21.2 percent (73 for 344), 3rd. Penalty killing: 84.5 percent (283 for 335), 11th (tied).

GOALTENDERS: Red Wings - Legace (19-9-5, 2 SO, 2.13 GAA); Joseph (16-10-3, 2, 2.39). Avalanche - David Aebischer (30-18-9, 4, 2.11); Tommy Salo (18-18-7, 3, 2.53).


LAST MEETING: Feb. 14; Avalanche, 5-2. At Detroit, Aebischer made 28 saves, and Tanguay scored the go-ahead goal early in the third period to lift Colorado.

ROAD/HOME RECORDS: Red Wings - 15-14-7-2 on the road; Avalanche - 18-13-6-1 at home.

Associated Press
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