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NHL Standings And Avalanche Schedule Preview, January 24

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Before we preview the upcoming weekly schedule for the Colorado Avalanche, it's time to take another glance around the Western Conference standings. As of this writing, Colorado is currently in 9th place in the West, out of a playoff spot. Their recent struggles have been well recorded. Perhaps it's time to look up at the teams Colorado needs to pass in order to reach the postseason tournament. Without further ado, I present:

The Incredibly Optimistic Look At The Western Conference Playoff Race! Let's dive right in...

8. San Jose Sharks -- This is a team built around two of the best lines in hockey...and a cliff-dive in production after that. Factor in that they play in the brutal Pacific Division, and San Jose is looking more like the odd team out this year.

7. Chicago Blackhawks -- The reigning Cup champions have had a difficult time building consistency this season, with plenty of player turnover and inconsistent goaltending. Corey Crawford looks to be a decent answer in net (for now), but he's never played a full season worth of games before. Will he hold up?

6. Phoenix Coyotes -- Without a true top offensive threat -- Shane Doan and Keith Yandle don't really count -- Phoenix is riding on the shoulders of Ilya Bryzgalov. Unfortunately, he isn't having one of his standout seasons so far. The Coyotes are the definition of inconsistency, having won four in a row and then immediately dropping three of four.

5. Anaheim Ducks -- All it takes is one team in the Pacific to get hot and the fringe teams like Phoenix, San Jose, and these Anaheim Ducks are in trouble. The Ducks have played at least two more games than anyone else in their division, the only reason they appear so high in these standings. They've had a good January, and goalie Jonas Hiller always gives his team a chance to win, but these Ducks are the definition of league-average in almost every statistical category. They are more of a coin flip to break through to the playoffs than anyone else on this list.

4. Nashville Predators -- The Predators are officially the hottest team in the league, having won 10 of the past 12. Pekka Rinne is a burgeoning star in net, and Nashville is giving Detroit a run for the Central Division crown. But they are a statistical enigma, ranking below average in most categories. Even with the recent surge (and Colorado's month-long slump) the Predators are only six points ahead of the Avalanche. One good week, and the gap is closed.

3. Dallas Stars -- The best (and most surprising) team in a loaded division, Dallas looks to have their playoff ticket punched. Goalie Kari Lehtonen has been stellar, and Mike Richards is having a Hart Trophy-caliber season.

2. Detroit Red Wings -- Detroit has been limping along without two of their top forwards, Pavel Datsyuk and Danny Cleary. Along with a shaky goaltending situation (Nabokov? Really?), Detroit has a hot Nashville team on their tail and may quickly slip out of the division lead.

1. Vancouver Canucks -- No comment.

Colorado Avalanche Schedule Preview

Monday, January 24 Vs. St. Louis Blues -- St. Louis comes to Denver for the last time this regular season, and hope things turn out better than their previous visit (a 6-3 crushing on November 15). The Blues have slipped to the outskirts of the playoff picture lately, as they haven't been able to sustain their early season success. Jaroslav Halak has continued to be the pickup of the offseason, but the Blues still don't have the offensive depth in front of him to succeed.

Wedensday, January 26 Vs. Phoenix Coyotes -- Ugh. Phoenix returns to town for their second visit of the month after dominating the Avalanche in a yawnfest of a 2-0 game on January 6. Since then, Phoenix has traded former Colorado star Wojtek Wolski to the New York Rangers with inconsistent results in the interim. Defenseman Keith Yandle still leads the team in scoring, and Bryzgalov is always tough in net, but it's the contrast in styles that will make the difference in this game. If Phoenix can clog up the neutral zone and keep the Colorado forwards from using open ice to gain speed, it could be another long night for the boys at Pepsi Center.

The All-Star Game occurs on Sunday, January 30. Make sure to watch Matt Duchene lace up his skates as the youngest ever player to represent the Colorado Avalanche. Rookie Kevin Shattenkirk will paticipate in the NHL Skills Competition on Saturday, January 29.