With All-Star center Nathan MacKinnon the latest to join the injury list, the Avalanche still have their sights set on surpassing the St. Louis Blues for first place in the Western Conference.
Colorado is already without top-six forwards Mikko Rantanen, Nazem Kadri and Andre Burakovsky along with starting goaltender Philipp Grubauer and depth forward Matt Calvert. Rookie defenseman Cale Makar returns to the lineup on Wednesday after missing five games as the Avs look to defeat the New York Rangers to keep pace with the Blues.
“We want to be able to play for first place,” Makar said. “We want to be up there and we want to have them chasing us. That’s our mindset right now and we are going to continue to have it the rest of the way.”
Makar’s return is just the first of a number of Avs players expected back in the coming days. Rantanen, Kadri, Burakovsky and Calvert all skated in red non-contact sweaters during Wednesday’s morning skate as they continue to work towards a mid-March return.
Kadri, the Avalanche’s second-line center, has not played since Feb. 9, missing 15 games. Rantanen was hurt four games later after crashing into the boards on a 2-on-1 play against Tampa Bay. Calvert, like Grubauer, was hurt during the Stadium Series game last month and Burakovsky has missed eight of the last nine games.
“You see it around the league, I think every team is going through a certain amount of injuries and you can always count on having one to two,” Avs coach Jared Bednar said. “But just the sheer number of guys we have out, it’s getting to be a lot, but hopefully we have some reinforcements coming soon. We’ll definitely see guys on this homestand.”
Forward J.T. Compher added: “It’s been tough, all of the injuries, but like we’ve talked about over these last few weeks, it’s next guy up, and so many guys have stepped up and found ways the last month or so to get results. We just have to keep playing the right way and playing together.”
Forward Vladislav Namestnikov was absent from morning skate (maintenance day) but Bednar confirmed that he will dress tonight. The Avalanche called up Martin Kaut on Monday on an emergency basis because Namestnikov was banged up and could have missed the game in Los Angeles.
Colorado trails St. Louis by two points but has a game in hand and also leads in each of the first two tiebreakers (regulation wins and regulation plus overtime wins). The Avs have had two chances to surpass the Blues over the past week but lost in regulation on both occasions. With St. Louis on the road in Anaheim tonight, a victory for Colorado means either keeping pace with the defending Cup champs or passing them.
And despite all of the injuries, banged-up players and a busy schedule, that remains the top priority.
“I don’t really think we think about saving energy (for the playoffs),” Makar said. “Every game right now is a must-win for us.”