Avalanche hope to turn playoff appearance into another run

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              FILE - In this Feb. 18, 2018, file photo, Colorado Avalanche center Nathan MacKinnon skates down the ice in pursuit of the puck during the first period of an NHL hockey game against the Edmonton Oilers in Denver. The Avalanche open training camp Friday, Sept. 15, and face Las Vegas Tuesday in the opening preseason game. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski, File)
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DENVER (AP) — Heading into last season, the theme was a “something-to-prove” refrain from captain Gabriel Landeskog and the Colorado Avalanche.

This season, it’s more of a “need-to-be-respected” tune.

The Avs caught a lot of teams by surprise a season ago when they improved by 47 points to make the postseason. They know they won’t be catching anyone off guard this time around. They also know they have the speed, youth and the scoring skills of Nathan MacKinnon to help them make another playoff appearance.

“We can’t sell ourselves short,” said Landeskog, whose team kicked off training camp this week. “We have to make sure we come in with some swagger. We know what we accomplished last year, getting to the playoffs, and how there weren’t a whole lot of people who thought we’d do that. We have to remember how much hard work we put into that and know we aren’t going to catch anybody sleeping.

“Everybody knows we’re a good team and here to stay.”

Colorado’s roster looks similar to a season ago, with a couple of tweaks. The team added more of a veteran presence with left wing Matt Calvert and defenseman Ian Cole. They also traded with Washington to acquire goaltender Philipp Grubauer as an insurance policy in case the injury-plagued Semyon Varlamov gets hurt.

A return trip to the playoffs won’t be easy — the Central Division is stacked with Stanley Cup contenders.

“Are we one of them?” Landeskog quickly added.

“It’s important to realize there’s a difference between being confident and being cocky,” said Landeskog, whose team lost in six games to Nashville during the first round last April. “We have to make sure we’re confident and have that swagger, but not thinking we’re better than we are, either.”

Not an issue.

They still remember 2016-17, when they accumulated a league-low 48 points. They rebounded to 95 points last season, making the postseason on the final day by beating St. Louis 5-2 in a winner-take-all showdown.

“Last year we had something to prove and had a chip on our shoulder,” defenseman Tyson Barrie said. “That worked well for us. Not a lot of people expected much out of us. It felt really good to prove them wrong.”

Colorado was one of the youngest teams in the league last season, with 11 different rookies dressing. They brought energy to an already speedy team.

“That injection of young guys coming in, really enthusiastic and excited to play, really rubbed off on a lot of guys,” Landeskog said. “It showed in the way we played. We’re still young, and it’s just a matter of taking that next step.”

MacKinnon is coming off a monster season in which he had 97 points (39 goals, 58 assists). It was the most points by an Avalanche player since Hall of Famer turned general manager Joe Sakic had 100 in 2006-07.

MacKinnon wants to elevate his game to an even higher level.

“I’m trying to be the best me, and hopefully that’s the best player in the NHL,” said MacKinnon, the top pick in the 2013 draft. “I’m doing everything I can to get better.”

Varlamov was solid in net for the Avalanche, before suffering a knee injury against Chicago on March 30 and missing the rest of the season, including the playoffs. He’s healthy again and ready to contend with Grubauer for playing time.

“Every year is a big, big year,” Varlamov said. “Every year you try to improve yourself.”

Grubauer, who is coming off a Stanley Cup win with the Capitals, was asked how many games he hopes to start.

“I want to play every one,” he cracked. “I’m really stoked to be here. I think there are big things coming up here.

“The team is really young and that makes it really exciting for everybody. In Washington, the last couple of years, we learned from our mistakes. You saw it a couple seasons ago — Colorado wasn’t the best and then the next season they took off. We’ve got to build on that from last year, for sure.”