Avalanche, Flames battling for playoff spot

By the time the end of February 2017 rolled around, the Colorado Avalanche were out of the playoff race and playing out the string of a terrible season.

They were 17-42-3 after the 62nd game of the season and finished with 22 wins and 48 points, both lows for a full season in Denver.

There is a different vibe in the locker room this season. The Avalanche enter game No. 63 just two points behind Calgary for the final playoff spot and have played one less game than the Flames. While it will take a great finish by Colorado to nab one of the top three spots in the Central Division, the wild card is a real possibility.

The Avalanche players are treating Wednesday’s night game against Calgary with appropriate importance.

“It is a big game,” center Nathan MacKinnon said after Monday’s 3-1 win over Vancouver.

The Flames beat Colorado 5-1 in Calgary on Saturday. That loss was the end of a stretch of 13 of 16 road games for the Avalanche, and now they’re in the midst of playing seven of nine at home.

Calgary (32-23-9) lost, 2-1, in Dallas on Tuesday while Colorado rested, holding just an optional practice. The Flames are on the players’ minds, especially after getting routed in Calgary.

“We have a little payback,” Avalanche forward Mikko Rantanen said Monday night. “They won last time they were here, too, so I think (we are) 0-2 against them this year. I think it’s time to get a win against those guys. I don’t know if they played today or not but we are battling with them for a wild-card spot so it’s going to be a huge game for us.”

Neither team made big deals before Monday’s trade deadline. The Flames signed forward Chris Stewart — a former Avalanche player — off waivers from Minnesota and acquired center Nick Shore from Ottawa for a seventh-round pick.

Stewart wasted no time in getting acclimated. He started on Calgary’s first line with center Sean Monahan and Johnny Gaudreau against Dallas on Tuesday night.

“To get an opportunity to play with two of probably the best young hockey players in this league, it’s going to be fun and I look forward to the challenge,” Stewart told the Calgary Sun on Tuesday.

Stewart had one shot on goal in 12:53 of ice time against Dallas.

Colorado (33-24-5) swapped defensemen with New York, sending Chris Bigras to the Rangers for Ryan Graves. They also signed Mark Alt off waivers.

Both moves bolster their banged-up blue line. Top defenseman Erik Johnson is expected to miss extended time with a shoulder injury but Anton Lindholm is close to returning. Lindholm suffered an elbow injury Feb. 18 against Edmonton, the same game when Johnson went down.

Lindholm practiced Tuesday.

“According to me, I’m ready right now,” Lindholm told HockeyBuzz.com on Tuesday.

Colorado recalled goaltender Spencer Martin from the AHL to serve as Semyon Varlamov’s backup for Wednesday. Jonathan Bernier has been in the concussion protocol for the past five games and was joined by Andrew Hammond. Hammond hasn’t played so he most likely suffered his head injury in practice.