Colorado Avalanche: Sweet 15

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Colorado Avalanche:  Sweet 15

The Colorado Avalanche have exactly 15 games left in the regular season to determine their playoff fate. After compiling four impressive wins in a row to close out February, the Avalanche found themselves with a golden opportunity to surpass the Dallas Stars and reclaim the eighth and final playoff spot.

All they had to do was beat the NHL's worst team, the Columbus Blue Jackets here in Colorado. Easy, right?  Not so fast. 

Columbus came ready to play on Thursday night, the Avalanche did not.  The Blue Jackets, with Rick Nash still at the helm, played a very good game.

Goalie Steve Mason looked like he did his rookie year in 2008-09 when he won the Calder Trophy. He has struggled mightily this year, as have the Jackets. Thursday's win in Denver was only Mason's ninth of the year and his first shutout to date. He had 10 back in '08-'09.

Columbus came out and played well the entire game. They had nothing to lose and they played like it.  They were loose, skated well, and controlled the game. The Avalanche on the other hand, who had everything to gain, certainly did not play like it. They played as if they were going to win the game simply based on the fact that they had more talent than Columbus.

It doesn't work that way in the National Hockey League. In the NBA or MLB, perhaps talent always wins out, but not in professional hockey. No team in the NHL is going to win consistently with talent alone.  The teams who win are the ones who go out and out-compete their opponents.  Sure, it takes an incomparable amount of talent and skill to even compete, but the players and teams with the work ethic and desire are the ones who succeed.

Avalanche goalie Semyon Varlamov robs Wild forward Dany Heatley on Sunday night

After the Avs laid an egg in the 2-0 shutout loss to Columbus, they hosted the Pittsburgh Penguins, who had plenty fan support throughout Pepsi Center. Unlike the Columbus game, the Avs got off to a decent start, but goalie Marc-Andre Fleury was up to the challenge. The Penguins then broke through and skated to an easy 5-1 victory.

Goalie Jean-Sebastien Giguere expressed his frustration by clotheslining Penguins forward Matt Cooke. Steve Downie also got into an altercation with Fleury and ended up injuring his shoulder. The extent of his injury is still unknown.

The losses to Columbus and Pittsburgh hurt, but certainly did not kill the Avs' playoff hopes. Less than 24 hours after the beat-down by Pittsburgh, the Avs found themselves in Minnesota to take on their division rivals, the Wild.

After losing his first two games in an Avalanche sweater, the newly acquired Jamie McGinn took it upon himself to notch a mark in the Avs' win column, scoring the game's only two goals in the first period. The goals were assisted by Peter Mueller and Stefan Elliott, both of whom have encountered a bit of adversity of late, so it was good to see them get on the scoresheet.

After sitting out the Pittsburgh game, goalie Semyon Varlamov returned to nets for Colorado and was superb against Minnesota. He earned his fourth shutout of the season with 30 saves including a highlight reel pad save on Wild sniper Dany Heatley (pictured above) in the third to preserve Colorado's 2-0 lead and ultimately his shutout. Varly has only allowed four goals over his last five starts.  He is certainly getting hot at the right time for Colorado, and if he keeps it up for another month, playoffs are more than a realistic possibility.

 

Nick Laham/Getty Images

The Avalanche will face the Minnesota Wild tonight in Denver and must come out with the same intensity that they did in St. Paul on Sunday. With the race still as tight as it is, the Avs cannot afford to have another letdown like the Columbus game—if you recall, the Avs shutout Columbus 5-0 two weeks ago on the road.

After completing the home-and-home with the Wild, the Avs will travel to Nashville to take on the Predators, a very good team they have yet to beat in two tries thus far this season. Saturday will see the Avs back home against the Edmonton Oilers for their final meeting of the season. The Oilers are another team at the bottom of the standings that the Avs cannot afford to take lightly.

Gabriel Landeskog continues to shine as he was named the NHL's rookie of the month for February.  He compiled seven goals and six assists over 12 games last month. He is certainly a big reason that the Avs are still in the playoff hunt and if he continues to produce like he has, the Avs could very well find themselves in the postseason and Landy could find himself with some nice hardware in June.

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