"It would have been hard to believe when the season started that we would be battling for the first spot and they'd be out of the playoffs," Avalanche right wing Milan Hejduk told NHL.com. "Teams that struggled last year, like us and L.A. and Phoenix, are doing well. Teams like Detroit and Dallas aren't doing as well as everybody expected. It's shifted a little bit."
Once-bitter archrivals, the Avalanche and Red Wings meet Monday (9 p.m. EST, VERSUS) at the Pepsi Center in a game that looms large for both, minus the acrimony and bloodshed.
"They were great times where you had two elite teams battling it out," Avalanche captain Adam Foote said. "It was going to come down to which one was going to get out of the West. We created a great rivalry that will be remembered. We made it easy for the media, and the fans were always pumped up. It was fun for the players, too. It was an easy game to get up for. It was amazing hockey."
Foote and Hejduk are the lone remaining Avalanche players to participate when the rivalry was at its peak, but a number of Red Wings remain active: captain Nicklas Lidstrom
, goalie Chris Osgood and forwards Kris Draper and Tomas Holmstrom
The rivalry? It's in the past -- a different game, a different era. It's still hard games against these guys. I think now we have more of a rivalry with Vancouver and Calgary, the teams that we play the most, division teams. - Avalanche right wing Milan Hejduk
"It's mostly different people now on both sides," said Hejduk, who is hopeful of playing Monday after missing the past 15 games to recover from arthroscopic knee surgery. "It's still highly-competitive games. They still have a lot of highly-skilled players, even if they aren't playing as well this year as they would like to, or they have in the past. They're still a really dangerous team with a lot of skill.
"The rivalry? It's in the past -- a different game, a different era. It's still hard games against these guys. I think now we have more of a rivalry with Vancouver and Calgary, the teams that we play the most, division teams."
The Avalanche won both previous meetings in October, taking a 4-3 shootout decision at Joe Louis Arena on Oct. 17, and a 3-1 victory at the Pepsi Center on Oct. 24 when goalie Craig Anderson made 48 saves.
Both teams have been hit hard by injuries. Detroit has lost 279 man-games to injuries, losing Valtteri Filppula
, Johan Franzen
, Niklas Kronwall
, Kirk Maltby, Jason Williams and Henrik Zetterberg
for extended periods.
Colorado has lost 264 man-games to injuries, with Kyle Cumiskey, Foote, Hejduk, David Jones, John-Michael Liles, Ruslan Salei and Marek Svatos sitting for long stretches.
All but Jones, who is recovering from major knee surgery, could be available for Monday's game.
The Red Wings expect defenseman Andreas Lilja to play, nearly a year after he suffered a concussion, while Holmstrom (knee) and Patrick Eaves
(ankle) have been practicing with no ill effects from their recent ailments.
"I think it's going to feel like everything is quick out there," Lilja told Detroit reporters. "I'm probably going to get tired in Colorado, playing (in the mile-high altitude). I'm so excited just to be able to go out there and battle for points. Usually at this time of year you're pretty tired and maybe not as excited as you were in the beginning of the season, but I'm really excited now, so it's going to be fun."
Anderson will make his 17th-consecutive start in goal for Colorado, while Jimmy Howard
, who has supplanted Osgood as Detroit's No. 1 goalie, will make his ninth start in a row.
"Every single night we know how much the games are worth," Howard said. "We've got to find a way to pull out two points every night. There's been urgency for a while with everything that's going on. We've been stuck with this dark cloud over our head for quite some time now with injuries. Now that we're getting guys healthy, it's a little bit of an adjustment period. Guys need to find their games again."
No fewer than seven Red Wings players, along with Team Canada coach Mike Babcock, took part in the Winter Olympics, which could serve as an advantage since they remained in game shape for the past two weeks while the League shut down.
"We need to make sure we are ready to come out on Monday and start winning some games, and those guys a big part of that," Red Wings assistant coach Paul MacLean said. "I am sure it won't take long for them to come to that understanding."
Three Avalanche players took part in the Olympics, with center Paul Stastny skating for Team USA in Sunday's gold-medal game.
Avalanche rookie Matt Duchene doesn't look at the Red Wings as experiencing a down season, and said he and his teammates can use them as a measuring stick to see how they match up against them.
"For a guy like me to play against superstars like (Pavel) Datsyuk and Zetterberg, and to see the level they're at, I want to get to that level and I can see what I need to do to get there," he said. "Datsyuk was one of my favorite players growing up, so it's pretty cool to try to be able to watch these guys and try and compete with them."
But playing on the road has been a struggle for the Red Wings, who are 12-13-7 away from Joe Louis Arena.
"The goal is to reunite and win a (Stanley) Cup together," Draper said. "That's our focus now."
Author: Rick Sadowski | NHL.com Correspondent