Climbing up The Division

The Colorado Avalanche have used their recent hot play to climb to the top of their division, but one bad game could cost them first place.

The New Jersey Devils can relate.

Colorado and New Jersey, two streaking teams clinging to the top spots in their respective divisions, meet Saturday in Denver in the last interconference matchup for each this season.

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The Avalanche (39-27-6) have won eight of their last nine games to take the lead in the Northwest Division, though it's not exactly a comfortable one. Minnesota and Calgary are two points behind, and Vancouver sits just four back, all with a game in hand on Colorado.

The Devils (41-24-6) are a point ahead of Pittsburgh in the Atlantic Division, with the surging New York Rangers making a late run to make it a three-team race.

"If you lose (a game) and everyone else wins, you're in panic mode," said Avalanche forward Andrew Brunette, who has five goals and five assists in his last eight games. "So, every day it's going to change, so we just have to continue to just try to play the game to get points every night."

Because of the NHL's unbalanced schedule, both Colorado and New Jersey will have plenty of chances to claim their respective division crowns over the season's final three weeks. Following Saturday's game, the Avalanche close with nine games against Northwest opponents, while the Devils have nine of their final 10 against the Atlantic.

Both teams have been successful in their interconference games. The Devils are 6-3-0 against the Western Conference, including 3-1-0 against the Northwest Division. The Avalanche, meanwhile, are a league-best 8-1-0 outside of their conference, including 4-0-0 against the Atlantic.

Colorado is also 8-1-0 in its last nine games, which is surprising due to the amount of injuries Joel Quenneville's team has been dealing with. Centers Joe Sakic and Paul Stastny have missed significant time this season, and forwards Peter Forsberg and Ryan Smyth, along with defensemen Jordan Leopold and Adam Foote, have all missed multiple games recently.

Though the latter four were out of the lineup on Thursday, Sakic and Stastny had an assist apiece in the Avalanche's 5-1 win over Edmonton. Five Colorado players scored, including rookie David Jones, who has a pair of goals - the first two of his career - in the past two games.

"The lines were all contributing," Quenneville said. "I liked every aspect of our game."

Smyth, who has missed 27 games this season, is expected back against New Jersey. Foote and Leopold are out, while Forsberg is doubtful.

The Avalanche have gotten outstanding goaltending from Jose Theodore. The former Vezina Trophy winner is 8-2-0 with a 1.74 goals-against average in his last 10 starts.

New Jersey has been riding the hot play of last season's Vezina winner, Martin Brodeur. The Devils have only scored 11 goals in six games in March, but Brodeur has helped them win four of those with his 1.96 GAA.

He gave up three on Thursday in Minnesota, but stopped all three Wild players in the shootout, helping New Jersey win 4-3.

"Anytime we have Marty in net in the shootout," forward Jamie Langenbrunner said, "we like our chances."

Brodeur is 23-12 in shootouts during his career.

Though the Devils are struggling offensively, they've typically been able to rely on Zach Parise. The left wing leads the team with 30 goals and 60 points, and has five goals in his last three games.

New Jersey hasn't played in Colorado since a 1-1 tie on Nov. 30, 2003. The teams last met when Colorado won 4-3 in a shootout on Dec. 9, 2005.

by: Staff Writers - Email Us

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