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Stanley Cup champion Avalanche search for way out of rut

NHL: Florida Panthers at Colorado Avalanche

Jan 10, 2023; Denver, Colorado, USA; Colorado Avalanche right wing Mikko Rantanen (96) celebrates a goal in the third period against the Florida Panthers at Ball Arena. Mandatory Credit: Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- Mikko Rantanen unlaced his skates after practice and leaned back at his locker as he contemplated a season that’s on thin ice.

“There’s time,” the Colorado Avalanche forward said of getting the defending Stanley Cup champions back on course. “But not too much time.”

Maybe it’s the long list of injuries finally catching up with the Avalanche. Or perhaps it’s the toll from last season when they played into the summer to earn the franchise’s third Stanley Cup trophy. But the cold, hard reality is this: Colorado (20-17-3) is currently on the outside of the playoff picture at the halfway point of the season.

There’s plenty of season left, of course, to avoid joining the company of teams that have failed to make the playoffs the following season to defend their title. It’s a list that includes the 2015 Los Angeles Kings (winners in `14) and the 2007 Carolina Hurricanes ('06 champs) since the salary cap era started in 2005.

“It’s tough right now,” Rantanen said. “We’re working hard, but just feel like it’s not coming our way right now.”

The Avalanche had lost seven of their last eight heading into a game against Ottawa. They’ve tried just about everything to break out of their funk - players’ only meetings, vigorous practices, detailed film study - but nothing has done the trick.

It’s the opposite of last season, when Colorado rarely experienced any sort of prolonged skid (the Avalanche did lose four straight near the end of the year but already had the West race well in hand).

“I think they’re down. They’re down, because they want to win,” Colorado coach Jared Bednar said of his team. “But I don’t think it’s a crazy amount of frustration.”

The Avalanche have certainly been hit hard by injuries this season. They’re currently without captain Gabriel Landeskog and forward Valeri Nichushkin, along with defensemen Josh Manson and Bowen Byram.

Nichushkin, Manson and Byram all went through skating drills in an adjacent rink as the Avalanche prepared for practice.

But they’re not ready for a return. Not quite yet.

Another blow on the injury front: Bednar said forward Darren Helm will miss some time with a lower-body injury. He was sidelined the opening 35 games due to the same injury.

In addition, there remains no timetable on Landeskog, who underwent knee surgery in October.

“We miss him for sure,” Bednar recently said. “He’s a real good asset for our team, obviously.”

To date, Colorado has utilized 38 different players this season, which is one away from of matching the Avalanche mark for most used in a single season. It’s been a constant stream of young players joining the Avalanche from the Colorado Eagles of the American Hockey League. But they’re not using injuries as any sort of excuse.

“We know what to do. We’re very prepared in terms of how we need to play and how we need to execute on a nightly basis,” forward Andrew Cogliano said. “Really, it comes within us. It comes within the guys in the room. We’ve got to dig in and find a way to get out of it.”

NOTES: All-Star defenseman Cale Makar received a maintenance day. He’s logged 30 or more minutes of ice time in three of the last four games. ... Rantanen leads the team in goals (27) and points (51). It’s why Makar has been campaigning to get Rantanen into this year’s All-Star Game through the fan vote. “He should have been our first selection on our team,” said Makar, who was selected to the All-Star Game. “I have no doubt fans will get him in.”