Rick Sadowski: Playoffs still within reach

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Avalanche coaches and players are feeling a lot better than they did a couple of weeks ago about their chances of gaining a Western Conference playoff spot with 41 games remaining in the regular season.

The Avalanche closed out the first half Thursday with a 5-2 win against Ottawa, giving them a 17-16-8 record and 42 points, 14 points off last season’s pace when they surprised everyone by winning the Central Division.

“We’ve been battling for a while and the last 10-11 games it feels like we’re starting to build some momentum and guys are starting to feel better,” Jarome Iginla said Thursday after he scored two goals in a 5-2 win against Ottawa. “That’s the end of the first half and we’ve given ourselves a chance to keep climbing into the playoff race. We think we can do that. We’ve been through some tough times this year and it’s starting to really come for us.”

The Avalanche have gone 8-3-2 in the past 13 games with four wins in the past five heading into Saturday afternoon’s game against Dallas at the Pepsi Center, their most important game to date.

“We’re playing a team like us, one that’s playing better hockey lately, and it’s an opportunity to get ahead of them in the standings and get even closer to our objective,” coach Patrick Roy said Friday after practice that was attended by TWO reporters. Yeah, the Broncos have a home playoff game Sunday, but still …

The Avalanche trail Dallas (18-15-7), who have one game in hand, by one point and as of Friday they were within five points of Winnipeg (20-14-7), which held the second wild card position. Calgary (21-17-3) was two points back of the Jets before their home game against Florida.

“We’re more and more confident as a group,” Roy said. “I think we’re playing better defensively and that has kept us in most of our games. Now, offensively we’re finding ways to score that big goal at the right time. Yesterday was a good example; I thought it was good for our confidence to score five goals. We had good traffic in front of the net.”

But Roy wasn’t happy with the number of shots the Avalanche forced goalie Semyon Varlamov to face in the past two games — 54 Tuesday in the 2-0 win in Chicago and 38 Thursday against Ottawa.

“We’re going to have to play better against Dallas, defensively, if we want to win that hockey game,” he said.

Defenseman Tyson Barrie couldn’t agree more.

“A hundred percent,” Barrie said. “We can’t rely on Varly to be that good every night. He’s been our best player the last two games and we’re not going to expect that out of him every night. We have to better as a unit not giving up so many shots. But there’s nothing better as a D-man knowing he’s back there bailing you out.

“It’s a lot to ask of him and we don’t want him to carry the workload he has the last two games. But I think he kind of relishes that, loves feeling the puck, feeling lots of shots. We’re helping him out in that regard, but we’re going to try and limit those.”

Captain Gabriel Landeskog won’t take credit, but he and other team leaders have helped cultivate a positive atmosphere in the locker room. Players have been accountable for their play and there hasn’t been any finger pointing.

“It couldn’t get much worse where we were,” he said of the team’s 9-13-6 record on Dec. 9. “We just came together and said, ‘You know what? Let’s do this, take it one game at a time, good and bad, and let’s stay together.’ We’re starting to play better and better. I feel like we’re getting there, but we have a long ways to go.”

It always helps team morale when players sacrifice their bodies to absorb hits to make plays or to block shots. The Avalanche blocked 25 shots Thursday and only had four of their own blocked. Jan Hejda and Erik Johnson led the way with four each.

“These guys are blocking shots on a nightly basis,” Landeskog said of the defense corps, “and it’s tremendous to see how they put their bodies on the line night in and night out. When you see guys like (Nathan) MacKinnon block shots, it fires up the whole bench and it’s something that sends a strong message.”

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Center Ben Street, who hasn’t played since sustaining a hand injury Nov. 25 against Arizona, practiced Friday and could be available as early as Tuesday. It has yet to be determined if he’ll stick with Colorado and be reassigned to Lake Erie in the AHL. The Avalanche have 21 players on the active roster, two under the NHL maximum.

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The Avalanche lineup will remain the same: FORWARDS

Alex Tanguay – Ryan O’Reilly – Jarome Iginla

Gabriel Landeskog – Matt Duchene – Borna Rendulic

Max Talbot – John Mitchell – Nathan MacKinnon

Cody McLeod – Marc-Andre Cliche – Daniel Briere DEFENSE

Jan Hejda – Erik Johnson

Nate Guenin – Tyson Barrie

Brad Stuart – Nick Holden GOALIES

Semyon Varlamov

Reto Berra Follow @RickS7