DENVER (AP) — Gabriel Landeskog recently caught a teammate staring at him over breakfast.
More specifically, the Colorado Avalanche captain’s bent nose, which also featured a fresh-looking scratch.
“He’s like, ‘Your nose is super-crooked lately,’” Landeskog recounted of Andre Burakovsky’s quizzical glance. “I’m all right. … I’m able to breathe all right.”
At the moment, there’s not much breathing room for the Avalanche in the down-to-the-wire West Division race. With two games remaining against Los Angeles, the playoff-bound Avalanche (37-13-4, 78 points) currently occupy the second spot in the division. They are two points behind lVegas (one game remaining, at San Jose) and three points clear of Minnesota (two games left at St. Louis).
Colorado can still finish anywhere from on top in the division to as low as third, which would mean no home-ice advantage in the opening round.
The Avalanche even have a chance at the Presidents’ Trophy, which goes to the team that finishes the regular season with the most points. The Avalanche last did that in 2000-01 on their way to capturing another prize, the Stanley Cup.
Goaltender Philipp Grubauer deflected any notion that pressure is building. He helped the Avalanche remain in this position by stopping 36 shots in a critical 2-1 win in Vegas on Monday. The Golden Knights and Avalanche split their eight-game season series, but the Avs hold the division tiebreaker due to more regulation wins.
“The next game is going to be the most important one,” said Grubauer, whose team hosts the Kings on Wednesday and Thursday to close out the regular season. “Obviously great job (Monday), but it doesn’t matter if we don’t win the next one. LA, they have nothing to lose. We’ve got to find a way to play our game again and get ready for the next two and see who we are going to play (in the postseason).”
Grubauer has settled back into a comfortable groove after missing a handful of games last month when he was added to the NHL’s COVID-19 protocol list. His career-high 29 victories this season are the most by an Avalanche goaltender since Semyon Varlamov had a franchise-record 41 in 2013-14.
What’s more, Grubauer ranks among the league leaders in goals-against (2.00) and save percentage (.921), which should garner him Vezina Trophy consideration.
“Super calm in there,” Landeskog said. “He’s swallowing everything that’s a routine shot and made some crazy saves on top of that this year. He’s really elevated his game.”
The same can be said of the play-making talent from Cale Makar, who has eight goals and 35 assists in 42 games this season. He leads all defensemen in points per game (1.02).
The Avalanche are also receiving contributions from lines other than their top unit of Landeskog, Nathan MacKinnon and Mikko Rantanen. In the win over Vegas, J.T. Compher scored the go-ahead goal in the third period on an assist from Alex Newhook, who made his NHL debut last week. It was a game in which the Avalanche were outshot by an uncharacteristic 37-21 margin.
“We can’t expect to win every game 4- or 5-1,” Grubauer said. “Every detail matters.”
The banged-up Avalanche received a boost Monday with the return of MacKinnon, who missed two games with a lower body injury. He leads the team in points (65), assists (45) and shots (206).
Colorado remains without some important pieces, including defensemen Samuel Girard, Erik Johnson and Bowen Byram, along with forwards Matt Calvert, Brandon Saad and Logan O’Connor, and goaltender Pavel Francouz. Another goalie, Devan Dubnyk, is on the COVID-19 protocol list.
Avalanche coach Jared Bednar said Girard may be the closest to a return, with Saad skating and working out.
As for Landeskog’s crooked nose, turns out he broke it last season in Detroit and they tried to reset it.
“We couldn’t really get it back to neutral,” Landeskog explained. ”With a couple of scratches and things on it, it brings people’s attention to it.”