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Game 35: Avalanche 4, Rangers 3 (OT)

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photo courtesy of David Zalubowski/AP

Because I missed the game (which I feel bad about, considering how exciting it ended up being), and because I'm a day late in making a post, this will be less of a recap of the Avs' 4-3 overtime win over the visiting Rangers and more of a brief summary of the Northwest Division and the Avs' place in it.

First of all, the box score of the Rangers game can be found here, the AP recap here, and the Denver Post recap here.

How the Avalanche continues to win games despite the loss of six starting players is pretty incredible.  Joe Sakic hasn't played in a long time and the team seems like they don't miss him at all.  Even Ryan Smyth's absence (considering how well he'd been playing just before his neck injury) didn't slow down the Colorado offense.  Milan Hejduk and Paul Stastny continue to produce---especially at home---and Jaroslav Hlinka now seems to be contributing on a far more consistent basis.  Wojtek Wolski is the clutch go-to guy.  And the defense is finally learning to play together even if big man Kurt Sauer continues to sit out with a bruised brain.

The most important factor in the last five games is Peter Budaj, hands down.  He's been the driving force in goal the Avs have been looking for all season, and now that Coach Q seems to have pulled his head out of his ass, it looks like Budaj will finally get the opportunity to once again prove he's the number one guy between the pipes.  He already showed that last season, but despite the incompetence behind the bench, he's been able to once again reassure us all that he's the future of the franchise in goal.  

As far as the Northwest Division goes, the competition is as stiff as always.  Vancouver continues to exceed expectations and is cruising since the return of ace netminder Roberto Luongo.  The Canucks have taken sole first place, but lead their two closest rivals (Minnesota and the Avs) by just two points.  The Avs take on Vancouver tonight in Denver.

A few days ago just four points separated first from last place in the Northwest, but since then Edmonton has sputtered while the others have won important games.  Now Vancouver has a nine-point lead on the Oilers but just a four-point lead on fourth-place Calgary.  The Northwest is the only division in the NHL that has four teams at 40 points or above and three teams with 20 wins.  The trend over the last several seasons of the Northwest being the toughest in the league continues unabated.

There is no doubt the Avs, injuries and all, have their work cut out for them.  Despite playing very few games against division rivals in December or January, Colorado must win as many games as possible to stay in striking distance of the Northwest title.  It could be the last day of the season before the winner is crowned.

Stars of the Game:

  1. Wojtek Wolski (1g, 1a)
  1. Milan Hejduk (2g, 0a)
  1. Peter Budaj (20sv, .870)