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Avalanche trying to hang tough without Sakic and Smyth - and now Stastny

The Canadian Press
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Colorado Avalanche center Paul Stastny pursues the puck in his zone against the Phoenix Coyotes during an NHL hockey game in Denver on Jan. 2, 2008. Stastny was named to the Western Conference squad on Thursday, Jan. 10, to play in the NHL All-Star Game later this month. THE ASSOCIATED PRESS/David Zalubowski Author: The Hockey News

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Avalanche trying to hang tough without Sakic and Smyth - and now Stastny

The Canadian Press
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Already without top stars Joe Sakic and Ryan Smyth, the Colorado Avalanche got hammered again on the injury front Thursday when they lost leading scorer Paul Stastny.

The second-year centre will miss two to three weeks after undergoing surgery Thursday to remove his appendix.

"Paul experienced some pain in his abdominal area today," Avalanche head athletic trainer Matthew Sokolowski said in a statement. "Further examination by our medical staff following practice determined he needed the procedure. We expect him to fully recover in two to three weeks."

Stastny's 49 points (17-32) are tops on the Avalanche. It earned him a first-ever trip to the NHL all-star game but now he'll miss next week's event in Atlanta.

At least he'll be back soon enough. The Avs are without Smyth and Sakic for two months. They've gone 4-3-0 since Smyth (ankle) joined Sakic (sports hernia) on the sidelines. They won't be back until late February at the earliest.

"The toughest part is that you can do it initially, it's just sustaining it," Quenneville told The Canadian Press on Thursday. "That's our challenge right now."

The Avs (25-18-3) are hanging on to the eighth and final playoff spot in the NHL's Western Conference with 53 points. They were four points out of second in the conference before Thursday night games, and also just five points out of 12th.

"I think our game lately has been very consistent," said Quenneville, who is in his third season behind the bench. "I think we've improved from where we were at the start of the year, but we still have to get better because we know how tough our division and our conference is. It's relentless."

It's a dog fight in the Northwest Division with only two points separating Minnesota, Vancouver, Calgary and Colorado before games Thursday. The Avs are trying to hang in there without two veteran players earning a combined $14.25 million this season. Sakic hasn't played since Nov. 30 while Smyth has been out since Dec. 31.

If the Avs can continue to survive until Smyth and Sakic return, it'll set up a frantic finish since their last nine regular-season games from March 20 to April 5 are all against Northwest opponents.

"You just look at how many big games you're going to have through that stretch," said Quenneville. "Whether it's Vancouver, Calgary, Minnesota and Edmonton - every team and every game is going to be very challenging.

"I think it's going to go down right down to the end whether you're going to be in first place or whether you're going to be a playoff team. That's what is going to be at stake."

The Avs have to get there in reasonable shape first. They just returned from a five-game road trip with one-goal losses in Detroit and Washington followed by consecutive victories at Carolina, Florida and Tampa Bay.

"Our team game has been good," said Quenneville. "We're getting real good contributions from guys like Cody McCormick and Cody McLoed, who have come up from the minors and given us some grit and character.

"They've given us some real good minutes and all of a sudden we've got four lines contributing and we're harder to play against."

Without Smyth and Sakic, the Avs aren't quite the high-flying bunch everyone had anticipated before the season.

"I don't think we've changed our play system-wise but just more of an awareness to check and be stronger positionally all over the ice," said Quenneville. "I think we're physically more involved.

"Those are two areas that have probably been more consistent in our game then it was before that, when we had more of an offensive-type team."

Jose Theodore, the former Hart and Vezina Trophy winner during his heyday in Montreal, is rounding into form. After rotating most of the season with Peter Budaj, Theodore has started the last six games and has gone 4-2-0 while allowing only 11 goals.

"He's got a nice bounce to his step right now," said Quenneville. "He's got the net and you can see his confidence the way he's moving and his motion in the net.

"His rebounds have been effective, he's challenging at the right time - he's been real good through this stretch. We've stuck with him during this stretch and he's really responded."

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Avalanche trying to hang tough without Sakic and Smyth - and now Stastny