DENVER (AP) — The Colorado Avalanche are on the brink of capturing the Central Division title even through their lengthy list of bumps and bruises, which includes being without their captain all season.
Evan Rodrigues scored the go-ahead goal on a wrist shot early in the third period to help the Avalanche beat the Winnipeg Jets 4-2 on Thursday night to stay in the divisional race.
Colorado has 107 points and needs to win in Nashville on Friday to secure the Central’s top spot over Dallas. The Stars wrapped up their regular season with 108 points after beating St. Louis.
“No matter what our lineup has been, we’ve fought tooth and nail and fought our way into a position to win the division,” said Rodrigues, whose team set an Avalanche record for players used this season. “That’s our focus now.”
Denis Malgin and Mikko Rantanen also scored for the defending Stanley Cup champions, with Artturi Lehkonen adding a late empty-net score. It was Rantanen’s 55th goal of the season, which is the most by an Avalanche player since the team moved to town before the 1995-96 season. He surpassed the Colorado mark of 54 set by Hall of Famer turned team executive Joe Sakic in 2000-01.
“He was a great player so even to be mentioned in the same sentence with him, it’s an honor,” Rantanen said of Sakic.
Alexandar Georgiev had a solid night with 18 saves against a Jets team that rested several of their players with their wild-card playoff spot secured.
Axel Jonsson-Fjallby and Kevin Stenlund scored for Winnipeg.
“We want to be a workmanlike mentality here going into the playoffs,” Jets defenseman Brenden Dillon said. “We’ve got a lot of skill in our lineup but we know when we work hard, we’re usually rewarded for it.”
David Rittich stopped 21 shots, but was caught off guard by Rodrigues’ shot from near the blue line with 16:59 remaining.
Rittich came up big later in the final period when he stopped Lars Eller on a penalty shot. Eller was awarded the shot after being taken down by Vladislav Namestnikov on a breakaway.
The victory was No. 50 for the Avalanche. They’ve now reached the 50-win plateau in back-to-back seasons for the first time in franchise history.
Before the game, captain Gabriel Landeskog announced his surgically repaired right knee wasn’t ready for another playoff run. He will be watching his teammates from the sideline. Landeskog’s been out all season after undergoing surgery in October.
“It’s a huge blow,” Avalanche coach Jared Bednar said. “One of the top players in the world.”
Another possible blow occurred in the first period when Andrew Cogliano caught an edge, slid and banged his left side into the boards. He was ruled out with an upper-body injury. Malgin also left the game.
“Every time someone gets hurt, there’s concern that it could be serious,” Bednar said. “We just have to keep moving on, moving forward.”
The Avalanche did have back Artturi Lehkonen, who missed 15 games with a broken finger. He had a goal and assisted on Rodrigues’ score.
Already locked into their playoff spot, the Jets chose to rest several players, including Blake Wheeler, Nikolaj Ehlers, Josh Morrissey, Mark Scheifele, Pierre-Luc Dubois and Nate Schmidt.
“We played really well. We didn’t give up much at all,” Jets coach Rick Bowness said. “We did a lot of good things.”
GAME NO. 83
Eller appeared in his 83rd game of the season Thursday — 60 with Washington and 23 with Colorado after he was acquired in a deal on March 1. An NHL season is 82 games.
“I noticed that (possibility) when I first came here. I saw they had a lot of games left,” Eller said.
GAME NO. 82
The Jets had four players suit up for 82 games this season: Kyle Connor, Dillon, Adam Lowry and Neal Pionk.
Scheifele could’ve been on the list, but rested in the regular season finale.
Jets: Waiting to see who they face in the first-round of the playoffs.
Avalanche: Close out the season Friday at Nashville. The game was originally scheduled for November but was postponed when the water main broke at Bridgestone Arena.
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Pat Graham, The Associated Press