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Win over Flames is vital for Avalanche

by Dan Rosen
If someone had circled Friday's game against Calgary on Colorado's schedule at the beginning of the season and told Joe Sacco, "That one right there, it's going to matter," the Avalanche rookie coach may have started doing back flips.

You could even imagine Sacco saying something like this: "You mean to tell me we're going to be the NHL's main attraction in early April? I'll take it."

Sacco still feels that way, no matter how his team has arrived here.

With only one win in its last seven games, it appears that Colorado is going in the wrong direction at the very wrong time, but everything can turn with a win, most importantly in regulation, Friday night at Pepsi Center against the Flames.

Colorado leads Calgary by two points for the eighth playoff spot in the Western Conference and has a game in hand. A win wouldn't guarantee the Avalanche a playoff berth, but it will make things doubly difficult for the Flames to catch them.

"I don't think there is any cause for concern," Sacco told in reference to Colorado's 1-5-1 record since a 3-2 loss to the Flames at home on March 17. "We have worked hard all year and we won some key games, some big games and that's why we're in the position we're in despite the sequence of events lately. Every team has gone through this. It just happens that we're hitting it at this time of the year."

The Avalanche have given up 30 goals in the last seven games and looked particularly bad in a 5-2 loss to Anaheim Wednesday. Sacco still believes they can turn this thing around with some "fine tuning."

He reminded the players Thursday in a team meeting why they are even in this position.

"I always go back to our players about getting back to our identity as a team," he said. "We have preached it all year long, but when we play with enthusiasm, passion and play on our toes we're successful. That's how we have to play."

It's part of the reason why Sacco put the guys through a loose, optional practice Thursday.

"We got everyone upbeat again, got their head back to where we need it to be," Avalanche leading scorer Paul Stastny told "I thought it was a good day to get the guys riled up again, get them believing in what we have been doing all year."

Stastny, who is a minus-7 over the last four games, said the Avalanche have put themselves in a bind because they've been squeezing their sticks and taking too many chances that have led to odd-man rushes going the other way.

Those were non-issues earlier in the season when a playoff berth looked like a sure thing.

"Earlier in the year we had a nothing to lose mentality and we have to play the same way," Stastny said. "We have no reason to get worried about what is happening here or there because we can control what we're doing. We are gripping our sticks too much, but it's a habit we're trying to get out of our game."

Sacco agreed, saying the Avs "need to be wiser in some of our decisions," but neither he nor Stastny would reference the Avs' inexperience as a reason why even if it seems like the perfect built-in excuse.

Four of Colorado's top six forwards have never played in a playoff game or really a meaningful game this late in the season. The same holds true for defensemen Ryan Wilson and Kyle Cumiskey, as well as goalie Craig Anderson.

"This time of the year is different but at the same the learning curve has been so good for a lot of these all year," said Stastny, who has only nine games of playoff experience behind him. "We have had a lot of ups and downs so I don't think it's that big of a change for us. It comes as no surprise to us that every game gets more important. Being a young team or an inexperienced in this situation is not an excuse we use."

But wouldn't squeezing the sticks or pressing when they're down a goal be signs of a team fighting its inexperience?

"They just look like they're getting exploited in so many different areas," NHL Network analyst Craig Button told "I remember watching them against San Jose (Sunday) and they had lapses of six minutes here and four minutes there. They played probably 40 excellent minutes and 20 bad minutes and it cost them the game. Those lapses got longer (Wednesday) night against Anaheim."

If you agree with Button, you're not surprised that the team's leading goal scorer, Chris Stewart, has no goals and a minus-8 rating in his last four games or that Matt Duchene hasn't scored in the last 10 games. Even Peter Mueller, who has been good since coming over from Phoenix, was a minus-3 against the Ducks.

Stewart, Duchene and Mueller are three of those four forwards who have never played games that mattered this late in the NHL season.

"These guys have been good players for us all year long and they are a big reason why we are where we're at right now," Sacco said. "It's no secret you need your best players to be your best players and I wouldn't expect anything less from these guys than to respond tomorrow night and take the bull by the horn so to speak."

They've earned the chance to at least try.

"We're not thinking about what happened in the last seven games because we put ourselves in a position where tomorrow is such a big game," Stastny said. "We have done such a good job over 76 games and it doesn't just go away for good. All you need is one game, one win to get it back."

Follow Dan Rosen on Twitter at: @drosennhl

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