Struggling Avalanche close out homestand vs. skidding Sabres

The NHL season is barely through a quarter of the schedule, but for the Colorado Avalanche it feels like a make-or-break time.

Colorado (12-11-2) is technically above .500 but it’s a precarious position. The Avalanche are again in the basement of the competitive Central Division and shades of last season’s collapse is creeping through. It was in November a year ago when they lost all five games of a homestand and never recovered.

Colorado is on another five-game homestand and it hasn’t gone well, but the Avalanche have a chance to salvage something when they wrap it up against the Buffalo Sabres on Tuesday night. They need a win, and the struggling Sabres might be the answer.

“I think you have to look at it like a must-win. It’s like a playoff game for us,” forward Mikki Rantanen said of Tuesday’s game. “It’s a five-game homestand, we are 1-3 right now. We have to win the last game. Everybody needs to get ready and make sure we are out battling the opponent on (Tuesday).”

Buffalo (6-17-4) has the worst record in the league and is in a monthlong tailspin. The Sabres are 2-11-1 since the start of November and have lost four in a row. Like Colorado, they’re searching for answers, which included waiving forward Matt Moulson on Monday.

Moulson was a respected guy in the locker room but had not been producing. He had no points in 14 games and was a healthy scratch in 13 others. If Moulson isn’t claimed by any team in 24 hours, he can be reassigned to Rochester of the AHL.

“We talked quite a bit throughout the last two weeks,” coach Phil Housley told The Buffalo News after Monday’s practice. “Just the direction that our team’s going, we have to make roster spots and try to push some other buttons and try to get some internal competition within our team.

Moulson signed a five-year, $25-million contract with Buffalo in July 2014 and scored 35 goals in the first three seasons of the deal, which was below expectations. He scored 30 goals in a season three times with the New York Islanders before signing with Buffalo but his high for one season with the Sabres was 14.

The lack of production was a catalyst in the decision to waive Moulson.

“It’s tough as a coach to make a decision like that, to let a good person go,” Housley said. “But under the circumstances that we’re in, I’m sure there’s going to be a lot of guys affected with the decision, maybe emotionally, maybe it’s motivationally.”

The Avalanche dealt with similar circumstances when they traded Matt Duchene a month ago, but they went 3-2-1 after that. That has given way to a 1-3-1 stretch. With a difficult four-game road trip upcoming — Colorado plays Eastern Conference leader Tampa Bay, Pittsburgh and Washington in the next week — beating Buffalo to end the homestand is important.

To do that, it will take cleaning up the mistakes that contributed to a 7-2 loss to Dallas on Sunday. Two careless turnovers directly led to goals.

The Avalanche are calling for their leaders to step up but one of them, captain Gabriel Landeskog, has missed the last three games after being suspended for a cross-check to the head of Calgary’s Matthew Tkachuk.

Colorado has struggled without him, but coach Jared Bednar told HockeyBuzz.com on Monday his team isn’t starting a collapse like last season.

“I don’t see it that way,” Bednar said. “We’re going to do everything in our power tomorrow to come out ready to play … I believe in this group. We lost three in a row earlier in the year and everyone was like, ‘Oh, here’s the old Avalanche,’ and we proved that not to be the case.

“I believe we’re going to do that again based on what I’m hearing and what I’m seeing from our team, and I’m confident in our work ethic.”