DENVER — An expansion team and the NHL’s worst team last season playing meaningful games against each other in late March.
Who would have predicted that?
One year after Colorado posted a measly 48 points and finished last in the overall standings, the Avalanche are in the thick of the playoff chase.
They’ll host the Golden Knights in a pivotal home-and-home series with plenty of playoff implications starting at noon Saturday at Pepsi Center. The teams meet against Monday night at T-Mobile Arena.
“I’m sure a lot of people predicted both of us to be in the bottom five, or if not bottom two. Coming into the season, expansion team, last-place team,” Avalanche star center Nathan MacKinnon said Friday. “But we could potentially meet in the first round right now, so that’s pretty cool, I think, the parity in the NHL. You don’t have to be a dynasty to succeed in the NHL, which is cool.”
Neither the Avalanche (40-26-8, 88 points) nor the Knights was projected at the start of the season to be in the race for a postseason berth.
Six months later, the Knights (47-21-6, 100 points) lead the Pacific Division by seven points over San Jose with eight games remaining and can clinch a playoff berth with a victory over the Avalanche and a regulation loss by Anaheim, Los Angeles or St. Louis.
Anaheim (at Winnipeg) and St. Louis (vs. Vancouver) played Friday night, while Los Angeles is at Edmonton on Saturday.
“We just want to keep securing our spot in the playoffs,” Knights wing David Perron said. “It’s going to be a big game for them, and we got to find a way to get to their level of intensity and emotions and we’ll be just fine.
“I don’t think you play to clinch. You play to make sure your game keeps getting better and better, that you get into that mode of where you do the right things at all times. It’s going to take care of itself.”
Colorado was 5-5 after its 7-0 loss to the Knights on Oct. 27 at T-Mobile Arena and appeared to be on its way to another sub-.500 season.
But with MacKinnon and linemate Mikko Rantanen leading the way, the Avalanche surged during the second half of the season.
Colorado went on a 10-game home winning streak from Dec. 29 to Feb. 14 and has points in 11 of its past 13 games to jump from fifth to first in the Western Conference’s wild-card race heading into Friday’s schedule of games.
If the Knights win the Pacific Division and finish with fewer points than Central Division-leading Nashville, they would play the top wild card in the first round.
“It’s real neat, because they had an awful year last year and that team rebounded,” Knights coach Gerard Gallant said. “They’re a real good hockey team right now, and they’re battling for the playoff spot, and that’s good to see. They’ve got some good players. They’ve got a great organization, good people there. It’ll be a fun back-to-back against them.”
MacKinnon is third in the NHL in scoring with 92 points (36 goals, 58 assists) and leads the league in points per game (1.39). He has at least one point in 14 straight games, while Rantanen has an eight-game points streak.
“To be able to get to this point in the year, it’s why these guys have worked so hard all year long, come together as a team to be able to play meaningful games now and give ourselves a chance to get in the playoffs,” Colorado coach Jared Bednar said. “We’ve got eight big games to go, and they’ll all be getting ramped up in intensity. Every game seems to get bigger and bigger, and our guys are aware of it. Looking forward to the challenge.”
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Who: Golden Knights at Avalanche
When: Noon Saturday
Where: Pepsi Center, Denver
TV: AT&T SportsNet (Cox 313/1313, DirecTV 684, CenturyLink 760/1760, U-verse 757/1757)
Radio: KRLV (98.9 FM, 1340 AM)
1. Fleury watch. Golden Knights goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury, who was removed from Tuesday’s game after the first period and did not travel with the team to San Jose, practiced Friday. Coach Gerard Gallant said “it’s possible” Fleury will start against the Avalanche.
2. Belly makes a difference. Since fourth-line center Pierre-Edouard Bellemare returned from injury March 6 at Columbus, the Knights’ penalty-killing unit has been stellar. They went 6-for-6 on Thursday and have killed 23 of the past 25 opponents’ power plays.
3. Angry Avalanche. Colorado was thumped 7-1 by Los Angeles on Thursday but has been outstanding at Pepsi Center. The Avalanche are 15-3-1 in their past 19 home games and rank No. 1 in the league in penalty killing at home (93 percent).
David Schoen Review-Journal