Despite missing arguably their three best players, the Colorado Avalanche have remained close to the top of the Northwest Division. Getting Ryan Smyth back earlier than expected should provide a huge boost for a team hoping to avoid missing the playoffs for a second straight season.
Smyth is expected to suit up for the Avalanche for the first time in six weeks Thursday night when they complete their season series with the St. Louis Blues.
Already missing captain Joe Sakic (hernia surgery), the Avalanche absorbed another major loss when Smyth suffered a broken right ankle on Dec. 31. Smyth was expected to miss as much as 12 weeks, but is returning to the lineup much earlier than expected.
"He's one of those guys, it's tough to keep him off the ice," Avalanche head coach Joel Quenneville told the team's official Web site. "He's been progressing really quick since he got his cast off, and if it was his decision, he would have been playing this past weekend."
Smyth was third on the team with 28 points at the time of his injury.
"Obviously it's frustrating watching. You want to be out there, contributing as much as you can," he said. "Hopefully I can bring my assets to the table and not worry about (the injury)."
While Colorado (30-22-5) will be glad to get Smyth back, Sakic and leading scorer Paul Stastny (appendectomy) still aren't ready to return. It was originally thought that Stastny, sidelined since Jan. 15, would play Tuesday against Anaheim, but he has been bothered by a groin injury and his return has been delayed.
The Avalanche, who went 9-7-2 without Smyth, are third in the Northwest, three points behind first-place Minnesota. Colorado is eighth in the Western Conference, two points ahead of Vancouver and one in back of Nashville and Calgary.
Marek Svatos scored in the first period, but the Avs were unable to score again Tuesday in a 2-1 loss to visiting Anaheim, snapping their point streak at four games (3-0-1).
"We were down to just 10 forwards, three lines, and your options are not great," Quenneville said. "But the guys were doing what we wanted them to do. They left it out there tonight."
Quenneville's team suffered another injury Tuesday when defenseman Brett Clark dislocated his shoulder in the third period. Clark, who has 21 points in 57 games, is out indefinitely.
St. Louis ended a four-game losing streak with a 4-2 victory over Los Angeles on Tuesday, getting the go-ahead goal from defenseman Jay McKee midway through the third period.
Martin Rucinsky and Jay McClement each added a goal and an assist for the Blues (25-22-8), who have won only two games in regulation since Jan. 10 and are 12th in the West.
"It's obviously a desperate time for us," Rucinsky said. "We've got no time left and we've got to play hard, we know that."
Manny Legace had won 10 straight starts against Colorado before he allowed five goals on 23 shots in a 6-4 home loss on Feb. 2. He is 12-2-0 with a 2.08 goals-against average and three shutouts in 15 career games against the Avalanche.
Colorado has won two of three meetings this season against St. Louis, scoring 15 goals in the last two games.