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Will the Avalanche surge back into a playoff spot in the second half?

It has been a tough season for the Colorado Avalanche. More than halfway through their schedule, the reigning Stanley Cup champions are outside of a playoff spot in the Western Conference.

The Avalanche have not yet fielded their optimal lineup. Gabriel Landeskog has missed every game this season while recovering from knee surgery. Nathan MacKinnon sat out 11 games earlier this season because of an upper-body injury, and Valeri Nichushkin’s surgically repaired ankle has kept him out of 26 total games. That is just a sampling of the numerous injuries that have forced the Avalanche to dress a league-high 38 different players.

Over their past three games, though, the Avalanche have found their dominant form, rolling through the Ottawa Senators, Detroit Red Wings and Calgary Flames by a combined score of 17-4. (They beat the Flames on Wednesday without Norris Trophy winner Cale Makar, who is dealing with an undisclosed injury.)

“I would bet on Colorado making the playoffs,” Calgary Flames coach Darryl Sutter told reporters, “and I’d bet on them being one of the (top) three in their division.”

Is that a safe bet? It seems so. The Avalanche, despite their rocky start, are two points behind the Flames in the wild-card race with three games in hand and five points back of the Minnesota Wild for third place in the Central Division with one game in hand. In fact, the Avalanche have games in hand on every team they are chasing; their 43 games played are tied for the fewest in the NHL.

With so many top-flight scorers on the shelf for extended periods, the Avalanche’s offensive output has understandably fallen from 3.76 goals per game last season (fourth) to 3.07 per game this season (tied for 21st).

Colorado’s playoff picture.

Mikko Rantanen has done much of the heavy lifting up front, accounting for 29 per cent of the team’s goals from forwards (31/107). That is the largest share in the league. Connor McDavid, the next-closest forward, has been responsible for 24.8 per cent of the Edmonton Oilers’ total goals from the position (39/157).

The Avalanche’s 51.4 per cent share of expected goals at even strength, however, suggests that they are doing the right things. Once the Avalanche return to full health, it is easy to imagine them taking off. For example, since MacKinnon returned from injury Dec. 31, he is tied for the league lead in scoring with 15 points in nine games and sixth with 41 scoring chances in all situations.

In goal, Alexandar Georgiev has provided steady play in his first season as a full-time starter, recording a .932 even-strength save percentage — second among 29 goaltenders who have started at least 20 games. His .917 overall save percentage is tied for eighth with Igor Shesterkin and Andrei Vasilevskiy, two of the past four Vezina Trophy winners, among qualified goaltenders. That bodes well for the Avalanche, who proved last season that elite goaltending is not required to win when it counts.

One thing that could hold back the Avalanche is their inability to find a replacement for Nazem Kadri on the second line. Kadri was a key figure in Colorado’s championship run, holding down the second-line centre spot throughout the season. The Avalanche controlled 64.5 per cent of expected goals at even strength when Kadri was on the ice during the playoffs.

Without Kadri, who signed for seven years with the Flames, the Avalanche have tried Alex Newhook, J.T. Compher and Evan Rodrigues at second-line centre. None of them have emerged as the answer to that problem. The team may yet look to the trade market for a fix that could also contribute to a second half turnaround.

It has been eight years since a defending champion missed the playoffs; the 2014-15 Los Angeles Kings failed to qualify for the post-season after winning the Stanley Cup the previous year.

As Sutter said, it would be unwise to bet against the Avalanche.

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