Tonight, the Colorado Avalanche will host the Florida Panthers in their one and only meeting of the 2011-2012 season. Of course, Avalanche fans will remember the Florida Panthers as the team the Avs swept in the 1996 Stanley Cup Finals to give Colorado its first ever major professional sports championship. While tonight's game at Pepsi Center will certainly not have implications as large as that game, it's still a big one for Colorado.
The Avs come into tonight's game with only one win in their last five contests and earning only three points on a recent three-game road trip going 1-1-1. The Avs have been phenomenal against the Eastern Conference this year with a 9-2-0 record and their only losses came against Pittsburgh and Winnipeg (who shouldn't really be an Eastern Conference team).
The Avs will need to channel their magic against Eastern opponents in order to beat this tough Panthers team who comes into tonight's game sitting atop the Southeast Division. The Panthers, who like the Avs, finished near the bottom of the NHL standings last season, made a plethora of offseason moves which included adding former Avs Tomas Fleischmann and Jose Theodore and are a much improved team. Both "Flash" and Theo are expected to be in the lineup tonight and will likely have strong games as former Avs players tend to do against their former team.
In the goal across from Theodore will be Jean-Sebastien Giguere, who gets the start tonight after watching Semyon Varlamov struggle and allow six goals against Phoenix on Monday. Giguere has been good all season and will need to be strong again tonight to stifle this high-powered Florida offense.
Speaking of offense, the Avs have hit a bit of an offensive rut of late, netting only six goals in their last five games. Matt Duchene, the Avs' most gifted offensive player, is still out with a knee injury and other players are going to have to fill the void consistently until Duchene's return.
We've seen flashes, such as Paul Stastny's two-point game in the victory in Dallas, and Ryan O'Reilly has been the Avs' most consistent player all season. Peter Mueller has looked good in the three games he's played in since missing 41 with recurring concussion symptoms and if points start racking up for Muells, that could be a huge boost for the Avs. Let's hope first and foremost that Mueller's concussion problems are behind him.
Tonight is not a big game in the sense that it's a divisional game or even a conference game and the proverbial four points are on the line, but it is a big game for a team that is currently in a dogfight for a coveted playoff spot in the Western Conference and is looking to bounce back after a disappointing effort in Phoenix.