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Avalanche Schedule Preview 2012: Predators, Stars Await

The Avalanche face their two closest opponents in the Western Conference playoff chase.

The Colorado Avalanche opened 2012 with another successful week, including a shootout victory over the Los Angeles Kings and a blowout victory over the Chicago Blackhawks. Their lone loss of the week, a 4-0 blowout at the hands of the St. Louis Blues, came on the second night of a back-to-back set against two playoff caliber teams and against the best home team in the league.

Colorado still has an uphill climb to make the postseason this year, but can place themselves in good position with another quality week against their stiffest competition.

Tuesday, January 10 vs. Nashville Predators

Thursday, January 12 at Nashville Predators -- Colorado begins the week with a home-and-home series against a team currently tied for 6th place in the Western Conference, the Nashville Predators. Nashville currently sits a single point ahead of Colorado in the standings, so a sweep of the two games would place the Avalanche solidly in the playoff picture and create some separation in the standings between one of the fiercest competitors.

Nashville has thrived this season by sticking to their strong defensive identity. All-Star defenseman Shea Weber leads the team in assists and points, and is only two goals behind team leader Patric Hornqvist -- who has 11 goals. This is not a high scoring team, but they beat you with a physical presence, good special teams, and great goaltending from elite netminder Pekka Rinne.

Saturday, January 14 at Dallas Stars -- Colorado heads back to Dallas for a rematch of the exciting November 4, 2011 game that saw Avalanche winger Matt Duchene tally his first career hat trick in a 7-6 overtime loss. The Stars enter this week in a dead heat with Colorado at 47 points, and both teams will be desperate for a victory in this matchup. The Stars offense is heating up, scoring four goals in their past four games and at least three goals in nine of their past 11 games. Forwards Jamie Benn and Loui Eriksson are enjoying breakout seasons, as both could be above the 40 point barrier by the time these two teams meet up in Dallas. In net, Kari Lehtonen is having yet another spectacular season. The criminally underrated goalie has a .921 SV% this season -- good enough for a 15-6-1 record.

With Matt Duchene still out of the lineup, the Avalanche need to put together another solid team effort this week to continue their second half surge towards the postseason. Against their closest competition, Colorado really needs at least a four point week in the standings to keep pace.