DENVER — The Colorado Avalanche insist they are a different team than last year’s club that finished with the fewest points in the NHL. In the standings, they are right: They are 17-16-3, a win total they didn’t reach last season until Feb. 25.
Another indication Colorado feels it is better than a year ago is how the players reacted to a missed opportunity Wednesday. The Avalanche’s 3-1 home loss to the Arizona Coyotes, the worst team in the league, was met with frustration and a little anger.
“Everyone knew this was the one we should have had,” forward Mikko Rantanen, who had the only goal for Colorado, said after the game. “Three points out of a playoff spot, we can’t lose these games, especially at home, so it’s a tough loss.”
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The good news is the Avalanche have a chance to rebound quickly when the Toronto Maple Leafs are in town Friday night. The Maple Leafs are coming off a 7-4 win over the Coyotes on Thursday night, and they got in late.
The Avalanche players know they need to take advantage of these situations, especially at Pepsi Center. However, the home ice hasn’t been kind to Colorado of late. After starting the season 8-2-1 at home — including an overtime loss in Sweden to the Ottawa Senators in November — the Avalanche are 2-5-0 in Denver.
Two of those losses came to the Coyotes and Buffalo Sabres, the teams occupying last place in their respective conferences.
“We’ve struggled putting 60 full minutes together here lately,” Colorado coach Jared Bednar told HockeyBuzz.com after practice Thursday. “After looking at (Wednesday) night’s tape, we got real competitive and real hungry in the third period, creating a lot of good chances and just missed out on a little bit of puck luck. Hit the post a couple times.
“It just shows what we can do when we come out with the right mindset and our details are tight and there’s a certain level of desire to get the job done.”
Colorado shouldn’t have much trouble getting up for the Maple Leafs. Toronto (23-14-1) has won three of its last four and is led by one of the most dynamic young players in Auston Matthews. The 20-year-old center leads the Maple Leafs with 15 goals, including one Thursday in his home state of Arizona.
Despite being in the spotlight since he was drafted, Matthews had 40 goals and 29 assists as a rookie last season, and he is enjoying a strong sophomore season.
“With his skill set comes a burden in some ways, I guess, but on the other side it’s pretty special, too,” Toronto coach Mike Babcock told NHL.com. “I think a lot of people would like to be Auston Matthews.”
The Avalanche will have their hands full trying to stop Matthews and the Toronto offense. One of Colorado’s top defensemen, Tyson Barrie, is out four to six weeks with a broken bone in his right hand, so Andrei Mironov was recalled from San Antonio of the AHL to bolster the blue line.
What Colorado needs more than reinforcements is a strong start. The Avalanche had just 13 shots on goal through the first two periods against Arizona before coming on strong in the third. It wasn’t enough, and they know they can’t be sluggish at the start against Toronto.
“We have to be a lot better than that the first two periods if we want to win hockey games,” Bednar said after the Wednesday loss.