DENVER — Defeating the Pittsburgh Penguins on Wednesday would’ve placed the Avalanche atop the Central Division for the first time since the early part of the season. But the Penguins — fighting for their playoff lives — proved to be more desperate. The Avs were defeated 5-2 at Ball Arena, putting an end to a six-game winning streak.

They knew it was a big game for both teams and were disappointed with how it turned out.

“It’s a big moment for our team. We have a chance to go first in the division,” head coach Jared Bednar said. “We knew they were going to play with urgency. Twelve games left sitting out of the spot by one point, I think, but I didn’t feel like there’s any reason why we couldn’t either.”

Center J.T. Compher and defenseman Devon Toews scored for Colorado (41-23-6, 88 points), which trails both Minnesota and Dallas by two points but has a game in hand on each. The Penguins are in Dallas on Thursday.

Center Darren Helm returned for the Avs after missing two and a half months. Helm has played just six games this season, dealing with a lower-body injury that kept him out for training camp and the first three months of the regular season. His addition provides further depth for a team once again dealing with a case of the injury bug. Forwards Evan Rodrigues (concussion) and Artturi Lehkonen (broken finger) were both shelved over the past five games. Helm centered the fourth line with Alex Galchenyuk and Matt Nieto.

“Last couple of days, I’ve been feeling pretty good,” Helm said. “We were looking at on Monday as a start, but I got pretty sick there. So we held off for a couple extra days and felt good to go.”

The action began in the second period. With both teams coming out of the first unscathed, the Penguins started to take control.

Superstar center Sidney Crosby got the scoring started at 1:11 with one of the nicer goals of the season. Crosby galloped into the offensive zone, got around defenseman Samuel Girard and fired a backhander over the shoulder of goalie Alexandar Georgiev, placing it almost perfectly in the top corner. The Pens continued their attack and quickly drew penalties on both Kurtis MacDermid and Andrew Cogliano. While on a two-man advantage, Jake Guentzel added to their lead, batting a rebound out of the air on the doorstep.

Colorado managed to cut the lead in half thanks to a tally from Compher. But after another penalty on the Avalanche, the Pens once again capitalized on the power play. This time it was Jeff Carter, who was all alone to Georgiev’s right before taking a pass from linemate Bryan Rust and firing it home.

Pittsburgh outshot Colorado 21-9 in the second period in the process.

“The game was lost in the second period,” Bednar said.

Before the second intermission, Pens defenseman Chad Ruhwedel was called for holding. Colorado was unable to gain much from the power play that carried into the third period. Eventually, the Avs were able to draw another penalty and capitalize on that man advantage. Toews scored his second goal in three games to make it 3-2 with 9:32 remaining. 

Carter answered back again to give Pittsburgh its third two-goal lead of the evening before an empty netter from Bryan Rust ended Colorado’s comeback attempt.

The Avs were outshot 45-30, relying heavily on Georgiev to keep them in the game on a number of occasions. Georgiev was solid throughout the game and was paramount in not letting Pittsburgh build its lead to three goals before the empty-net goal. He made 40 saves in the losing effort.