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Two key points at stake as Avs host Wild

by Rick Sadowski /
DENVER -- While the Colorado Avalanche wait to see whether Peter Forsberg feels ready to resume his NHL career, the team is gearing up for a pivotal game Thursday night against the Minnesota Wild at the Pepsi Center.

The Avalanche have lost three of their past four games and fallen into 11th place in the hotly-contested Western Conference playoff race with 56 points -- two behind eighth-place Chicago -- with 32 games remaining.

The Wild, with 57 points, sit 10th with 32 games left but have won five of their past six games and are coming off a 1-0 shootout victory against Los Angeles on Tuesday.

"We're just looking to get back to our identity as a team," Avalanche coach Joe Sacco said after the morning skate Thursday. "The things I'm looking for tonight are effort, energy and passion. If we have those things, I think the execution will take care of itself."

The Avalanche haven't played since a 5-2 loss to Phoenix on Jan. 26, the last day before the NHL All-Star break, because Tuesday's game in St. Louis was postponed due to severe weather conditions.

It's why the Avalanche went through a hard one-hour practice on Wednesday.

"We were able to simulate a lot of game situations," Sacco said. "We did a lot of five-on-five play and a lot of special teams play to kind of get the guys back in that game mode."

Craig Anderson will start in goal for the Avalanche, who won't have forwards David Jones and Ryan O'Reilly, both sidelined with shoulder injuries. They took part in the morning skate, as did Forsberg and Peter Mueller, who is recovering from a concussion sustained in a Sept. 18 preseason game.

"We're right there," Avalanche captain Adam Foote said of the playoff situation. "Everyone's making a push now and the tempo of the games goes up another level. (The Wild) was able to get their first game under their belt (following the All-Star break) and they're going to be loose and playing with a lot of confidence. We have to make sure that we come out with our ‘A' game early. The playoffs start now and we have to be ready for it."

While the Avalanche have been struggling in recent weeks, the Wild have won nine of 13 games since New Year's to get back into playoff contention.

"We've realized what we have to do to be successful, and we're starting to do it," Wild left wing Andrew Brunette said Thursday. "Our consistency level has been much better. I think we kind of found it on the road. We've struggled at home for a team that has always been really good at home."

The Wild have gone 8-2-1 in their past 11 road games and are 14-8-3 overall on the road, but just 12-11-2 at home.

It's been a similar scenario for the Avalanche, who have gone 14-11-3 at home and 11-8-3 on the road.

"We have to play better at home down the stretch if we want to stay in this thing," Brunette said. "I've been in this conference for 10 years now and every year it seems to be the same. Except for one or two teams, everybody is fighting for (playoff) positions. If you slip a little bit, it's going to end right away."

Jose Theodore is scheduled to start in goal for the Wild. He hasn't played since Jan. 11, when he allowed four goals on 25 shots in a 5-1 loss at Nashville. Theodore missed four games after that with a lower body injury and was the backup the past three games.

The Wild have outscored teams 22-7 and pitched three shutouts while winning five of the past six games, while the Avalanche have been outscored 19-9 in losing three of their past four.

The Avalanche won two of the three previous meetings with the Wild this season, most recently a 4-1 win on Jan. 14 at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul.

"We've always had good games with these guys," Sacco said. "For the most part, they're always close. They're a team that has done a good job defensively. They do a good job of clogging the middle of the ice. They make you play on the outside. When you play on the outside, you have to be ready to win battles, so we have to be prepared to do that."
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