Frei: As MacKinnon skates closer to return, Avs at least have stayed in the hunt

Jan 30, 2018; Vancouver, British Columbia, CAN; Vancouver Canucks defenseman Alexander Edler (23) checks Colorado Avalanche forward Nathan Mackinnon (29) during the second period at Rogers Arena. Mandatory Credit: Anne-Marie Sorvin-USA TODAY Sports

Nine of the Avalanche’s last 10 games have been on the road. Colorado has gone 4-5-1 in the three-week stretch.

The injured Nathan MacKinnon, who skated with the Avalanche at practice in a red/orange non-contact jersey Tuesday at Family Sports Center, will be out of the lineup for the seventh consecutive game Wednesday night against Montreal at the Pepsi Center.

He suffered the upper body injury at Vancouver on January 30, and if the most optimistic scenario in the wake of the 2-to-4 week prognosis had played out, he would have returned against the Canadiens.

That isn’t happening.

Without him suiting up, the Avs are 3-3-0.

That’s mediocrity, but thanks to the widening of the safety net that came with a 10-game winning streak from December 29 to January 22, this recent stretch at least has been good enough to keep them realistically in the hunt for the second Western Conference wild card playoff spot.

Yes, it could have been worse.

As the Avs finished up practice Tuesday afternoon, Colorado (64 points) was only two points behind Minnesota (66), currently in that last wild card spot, and one behind Los Angeles and Anaheim (65). By Tuesday night, though, Minnesota’s 3-2 win over the New York Rangers had put the Wild four up on the Avalanche. The Wild doesn’t play Wednesday, so a win over the Canadiens would get the Avalanche back within two. The Avs would also leapfrog the idle Kings and Ducks and be back in the ninth spot in the West.

“We’ve come way too far to fall out of it because we lose somebody or hit a little bit of a rough patch and some injuries and things like that,” captain Gabe Landeskog said after practice. “We have to realize what position we’re in and we can’t be satisfied to be in the mix.”

He said of MacKinnon: “I think it’s good to see that he’s progressing. You hope at this point that he’s progressing. We’re two and a half weeks out, or whatever. It’s good to see he’s coming back, skating hard. I think for us, we’re not focusing, we’re not counting down the days, we’re not doing any of that, we’re focusing on trying to win hockey games and making sure we’re climbing in the standings.”

This all is against the backdrop of the Avalanche already considerably surpassing its 48-point total in a dreadful 2016-17.

“If somebody would have told us last year that we’d be two points out (of a playoff spot) in mid-February, I’m sure we’d take that,” Landeskog said.

In the six games with MacKinnon out, his replacement on the top line — Alexander Kerfoot — has one goal and no assists while mostly centering Landeskog and Mikko Rantanen, who also missed one game during the stretch with a lower body injury.

MacKinnon wasn’t made available to the media Tuesday after practice, but coach Jared Bednar quickly confirmed to those on hand that MacKinnon wouldn’t play against the  Canadiens.

“No update,” Bednar said. “Same as before.”

Under prodding, Bednar then expanded on that answer.

“Yeah, he’s coming, he’s been skating the whole week without us and jumped in on some of the non-contact stuff today. That’s where he’s at.”

Will he play against Montreal?

“No,” Bednar said.

Will he play later in the week?

“I don’t know that,” he said.

Who’s going to start at quarterback for the Broncos next season?

(Just kidding.)

MacKinnon also skated with a handful of Avs on the second rink before practice and did additional work on his own after practice. While he won’t play against the Canadiens, he does seem close, and the Avalanche plays at Winnipeg Friday in a standalone road game before returning to face Edmonton at home Sunday afternoon.

If this were on the board in Las Vegas, the favorite in the wagering would be that he returns against the Oilers.

But I don’t know that, either.

Bednar did disclose that Semyon Varlamov would get the start in net against the Canadiens, and he also talked a bit about the status of former Canadiens Mark Barberio and Sven Andrighetto, both out with lower body injuries.

“Nothing new on Andrighetto,” Bednar said. “Barberio’s starting to feel better but he’s still not on the ice.”

Andrighetto hasn’t played since December 31 against the Islanders, and Barberio’s last game was at Montreal on January 23.

“I think taking into consideration some of our injuries that have piled up here lately …,” Bednar said. “We’re 3-3-1 with Mac out (including the overtime loss at Vancouver on the night MacKinnon was injured), I’d say that’s pretty good. The problem is, it’s not good enough. We’re losing ground every day in the playoff race. When (MacKinnon) went out, we were in the last wild card spot and now we’re chasing that.

“So it takes more than .500 hockey to stay in this race right now, especially in our division, which is unfortunate, but that’s the facts. So we’re going to have to find a way to win a few more games without these guys. . . If we’re just looking to survive, then we’re not going to keep pace. Within our room, we feel like we have enough to win and guys need to step up.

“We’ve been good at times throughout the course of the year, but what guys have done to this point with all the injuries we’ve had, we need a little bit more from everyone to get the job done. So that’s what we’re focusing on, trying to improve as individuals and as a group to make sure that we get the job done.”

Beginning February 26 against Vancouver, the Avalanche plays 12 of its final 21 at home.

The goals have to be lofty, but the reality is that if the Avs still are within two points of the final playoff spot when that stretch begins — or better than that, of course — they’ve given themselves a chance.

MacKinnon before practice:

MacKinnon during practice:

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Denver-based journalist Terry Frei writes two commentaries a week about the Avalanche for Mile High Sports. He has been named a state’s sports writer of the year seven times, four times in Colorado (including for 2016) and three times in Oregon. He’s the author of seven books, including the fact-based novel “Olympic Affair” about Colorado’s Glenn Morris, the 1936 Olympic decathlon champion; and “Third Down and a War to Go,” about the 1942 football national champion Wisconsin Badgers and the players’ subsequent World War II heroism. His web site is terryfrei.com and his additional “On the Colorado Scene” commentaries on subjects beyond the Avalanche are at terryfrei/oncolorado. 

E-mail: [email protected]

Twitter: @tfrei

Terry Frei’s MHS Commentary/Story Archive:

Bowman Brothers Reunion with the Colorado Eagles in final season as Avs’ ECHL affiliate

The longer Bernier can hold the net, the better off the Avalanche will be

Magazine: Interview with DU local product — and Olympian — Troy Terry  

Magazine: Nordic Combined ace Bryan Fletcher beat childhood cancer 

Magazine: Arvada-raised Olympic snowboarder Chris Corning  

Magazine: Mikaela Shiffrin can add Olympic glory in amazing season

Magazine: Lindsey Vonn shooting to stay healthy, go for gold 

Magazine: Lakewood’s Nicole Hensley is USA’s backup goalie

Don’t let MacKinnon injury knock the Avalanche off course

NHL, Avs heading back to work, not Olympics

A Tale of Avalanche All-Stars, past and present

All Aboard! Avalanche bandwagon gains momentum

A kid in Long Beach and his first stick

Jonathan Bernier on taking over the Avalanche net

Nathan MacKinnon doesn’t mind not being recognized … at the mall

Glory Days … Now get Springsteen out of your head

Sakic/Bednar and Elway/Joseph: Eerie parallels

Carl Soderberg goes from albatross to asset

Magazine: Jim Montgomery is Mile High Sports’ college coach of the year

Magazine: Will Butcher is Mile High Sports’ college athlete of the year 

Varlamov playing better than the numbers might indicate 

At the Christmas break, Avalanche is last — but still a turnaround story  

Tyson Barrie isn’t pictured, but he’s in the Avalanche picture 

On this (unnamed) line, Gabe Landeskog amps up the scoring

Avalanche rushing game involves Girard and Jost

And the Nathan MacKinnon answer is… 

Noted hockey pundit Yogi Berra would call this deja vu all over again

MacKinnon and O’Reilly meet again

Catching up with Jared Bednar

Gabe Landeskog has to be smarter, and he’s the first to say so

For Avalanche, winning back fans isn’t easy, either

Horseman/defenseman Erik Johnson up to playing marathon minutes

Ring of Famer Red Miller, Part One: Coal Miner’s son

Ring of Famer Red Miller, Part Two: About those %$#@ Raiders… 

This time a year ago, the wheels fell off 

Post-trade: On Girard and Kamenev

Matt Duchene heads to Ottawa

Stockholm is a Homecoming for Landeskog

Why Can’t MacKinnon do that every night?

And this Avalanche team is?

At the Pepsi Center, you’ll think you’re in Chicago

Is Zadorov ready to be – and stay – a top-pairing “D”?

For this is to work, Bernier has to be better

This isn’t just Jared Bednar’s second season. It’s his second chance.

Sven (The Reindeer) Andrighetto speedily skating into Avalanche forefront

With Avalanche off to another 3-1 start, leadership is a “core” issue

Magazine: Colorado Eagles’ class act in Northern Colorado

Magazine: Avalanche convinced a turnaround is possible

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