Avs, Red Wings battle in Denver

( - Petr Mrazek has helped keep the Detroit Red Wings in contention for first place in the Atlantic Division despite the loss of No. 1 goaltender Jimmy Howard to injury.

Mrazek's time as Detroit's starter appears to be winding down, but he'll likely get a chance to help the Red Wings pick up a key victory on Thursday night versus the Colorado Avalanche.

The Red Wings are 6-2-0 since Howard sustained a torn groin muscle versus the Washington Capitals on Jan. 10 and Mrazek has started all eight games since Howard was hurt.

Despite the loss of the All-Star, the Red Wings enter play on Thursday tied with the Montreal Canadiens for second place in the Atlantic Division and just two points shy of the Tampa Bay Lightning.

Mrazek made 22 saves in Saturday's 4-1 victory over the New York Islanders. Detroit bounced back after losing to the Lightning the previous Thursday to win for the seventh time in eight games.

Brendan Smith, Gustav Nyquist, Tomas Tatar and Jonathan Ericsson each lit the lamp for the Red Wings, while Pavel Datsyuk had an assist to match Sergei Fedorov for fifth place on the club's all-time assists list with 554.

"We did get some points there that we were happy about," said Smith. "We want to continue to build off this and that's what a playoff team and Stanley Cup team does."

The Red Wings are set to play three in a row on the road as they will visit Arizona on Saturday before facing Pittsburgh on Wednesday. Howard told Detroit's website that he hopes to return in time to face the Penguins.

"That's what we're shooting for," said Howard. "At first we had (Saturday versus Arizona) circled but we thought (that) would probably be just rushing it a little too much and Pitt will allow me a couple more practices to push it."

In the meantime Mrazek is expected to get his ninth start in a row while Jonas Gustavsson is in line to serve as the backup. Gustavsson has been out since Nov. 5 due to a shoulder injury and wrapped a conditioning stint with Grand Rapids of the American Hockey League. He was recalled back to the Red Wings on Wednesday.

Mrazek has faced the Avalanche only once before and took a 2-1 shootout loss on Dec. 21, making 22 saves on 23 shots faced through overtime.

Jarome Iginla had the winning tally in the shootout's ninth round, while Colorado's Calvin Pickard posted 34 saves.

The Avs beat the Red Wings for the second straight time following a four-game series losing streak, but Detroit has won two in a row and five of its past seven in Colorado.

The Avalanche picked up their second win in a row on Tuesday, besting the Dallas Stars 3-2 in a shootout. Colorado got a pair of third-period goals to tie the game, including Tyson Barrie's game-tying tally with 20 seconds on the clock, and Maxime Talbot won it in the 11th round of the shootout.

Talbot skated in wide and fired the puck past Kari Lehtonen and in off the left post.

Semyon Varlamov made 30 saves for the Avalanche and Ryan O'Reilly also scored as Colorado moved to 9-3-3 in its last 15 games.

"It's an important win for us, especially the way (Dallas) played in the first two periods," noted Avs coach Patrick Roy. "They were really sharp, and they didn't give us much. Every time we had some good looks, they had great stick. They blocked some of our shots, but I thought their game was A-1 tonight. It's nice to rally after giving up that late goal in the second period. Our guys showed some character."

Colorado is six points behind third-place Winnipeg in the Central Division and Varlamov figures to start tonight. He is only 1-4-0 in his career versus the Red Wings, posting a 3.58 goals against average and .887 save percentage in five meetings.