If the Colorado Avalanche are going to lock down a playoff berth, they'll have to do it without the help of their two best players.
The team announced on Tuesday that knee injuries will sideline forwards Nathan MacKinnon and Matt Duchene for at least the next two games, including Saturday's crucial wild-card showdown against the Minnesota Wild. But coach Patrick Roy issued a more ominous prognosis for the pair, telling the Denver Post they were considered unavailable on “a week-to-week" basis.
Duchene, who leads Colorado with 29 goals and 56 points, last played in a 3–1 win over Vancouver on Mar. 16. He picked up a helper in that contest, extending his scoring streak to four games (2-4-6).
MacKinnon has 21 goals and 52 points on the season, both second on the team. He was injured after contributing an assist in a 4–3 shootout win over the Flames on Mar. 18.
Their absence will put Colorado's depth to the test. With their top-two centers out of action, the Avs skated Mikhail Grigorenko, John Mitchell, Carl Soderberg and rookie Mikko Rantanen down the middle for Sunday's 3–2 win over the Oilers. It's expected that same group will remain in place for at least these next two games, which doesn't bode well for Colorado's chances to hold on to its playoff spot. Third-liner Soderberg is the top scorer of the group with 12 goals and 47 points. Neither Grigorenko nor Mitchell has as many as 25 points this season.
Meanwhile Rantanen, the 10th pick in the 2015 draft, has skated in just seven NHL games. The 19-year-old has played well for AHL San Antonio, but has looked overwhelmed at this level, struggling to keep pace with both his feet and his head.
And just by playing in these next two games, he puts the team's management in a tough spot. A 10th appearance in Nashville next Monday would burn the first year of his entry-level contract, a situation the Avs would probably prefer to avoid.
The schedule's not providing them any help, either. All nine of Colorado's remaining opponents are either in the playoffs or battling for a spot.
As bad as this news is for the Avs, it could be a fortunate break for their next two opponents. The Flyers, who come to the Pepsi Center on Thursday, are locked in a wild-card battle of their own and desperately need to leave Colorado with two points. But the big winners here could be the Wild, who trail the Avs by one point in the race to secure the West's final playoff spot. They've manhandled their Central rivals in each of their three previous meetings, including a 6–3 victory back on Mar. 1. A win in this one won't put them in the driver's seat, but it would prevent Minnesota from falling further behind in both the points race and the tie-breaking regulation/overtime wins category.