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Avs navigate injury-marred season, gear up for title defense

DENVER (AP) — Nathan MacKinnon punctuated his recent overtime goal by throwing a right jab into the air as he glided along the ice.

A fitting celebration for the Colorado forward after reaching the 100-point mark for his first time in an NHL season. An even more apropos gesture to announce the Avalanche were, indeed, ready to come out swinging to defend their Stanley Cup title.

Through all the injuries and mini-slumps, the Avalanche are right back to where everyone figured they would be — among the favorites. They clinched a playoff spot in San Jose on Tuesday, with MacKinnon wrapping up the night on his franchise-best 10th career OT winner. MacKinnon and his teammates are soaring into the postseason in spite of playing without their captain, Gabriel Landeskog, all season and using an Avalanche-record 43 different players.

“We’re facing our share of adversity but the guys that are healthy and able to play are digging in and playing hard as a team,” coach Jared Bednar said. “That’s all you can ask for.”

This season really has been an exercise in stick-to-itiveness for Colorado, which hoisted the Stanley Cup for a third time in franchise history in June. The banged-up Avalanche tumbled out of the playoff picture on New Year’s Day and weren’t back in until Jan. 20, where they’ve remained for all but four days, according to NHL Stats.

At one stage, they trailed the Central Division leader by 14 points.

Now, the team is in the running for the division crown (tied with Minnesota and Dallas — all with 98 points). The Avalanche also trail the Western Conference-leading Vegas Golden Knights by six points with six games to play. Vegas has four.

“All things considered, we’re in a good spot,” said defenseman Erik Johnson, who’s back after missing 19 games due to a broken ankle in February. “I think with just as short as the summer was last year, we just wanted to put ourselves in the best position possible this time of year. And we have. So that’s good.”

They’re trying to become the third team to repeat as Stanley Cup champions in the cap era that began in 2005, joining Tampa Bay (2020, 2021) and Pittsburgh (2016, 2017). Colorado is plus-700, according to FanDuel Sportsbook, to repeat as champions. It’s a figure that trails the high flying Boston Bruins (plus-380).

All season long, Colorado’s dealt with one ailment after another, with 429 man-games lost. It’s the third-highest total in Avalanche history, behind only the 2014-15 squad (495) and 2010-11 team (474). They’re currently without goaltender Pavel Francouz (lower body), Landeskog (knee procedure in October), forward Artturi Lehkonen (finger) and defenseman Josh Manson (lower body). But all joined the team for a four-game West Coast swing.

“We feel like it’s a good time of year, before we finish up here next week, to get everyone together and have a little team bonding and make sure we’re moving in the right direction for playoffs,” Bednar explained after a win Tuesday in which defenseman Cale Makar and forward Darren Helm were scratched. “Hopefully we get a few of these guys back off injury.”

Colorado has relied on big performances from MacKinnon and Mikko Rantanen to help keep things steady on offense in the absence of Landeskog. They’ve also missed Valeri Nichushkin for stretches of time, along with Makar.

On Tuesday, MacKinnon became the first Avalanche player to reach the 100-point plateau since Joe Sakic in 2006-07.

Rantanen remains close to a notable milestone, too. His next goal will be No. 50 this season, a mark an Avalanche player hasn’t hit since Milan Hejduk in 2002-03.

For Rantanen & Co., the more important thing is how they’re finding their rhythm. They’ve won 27 of 40 games since Jan. 4, which is second-most in the league over that span, according to NHL Stats.

“It just tells the mentality of the team and just the spirit we have in the group,” Rantanen said. “Just the way we play together, and play to our structure and defend well, gives us a chance to win games.

“We’re happy to be where we are.”


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Pat Graham, The Associated Press