New Jersey Devils right wing Michael Ryder, left, moves the puck down the ice as Colorado Avalanche center Ryan O'Reilly covers in the third period of the Avalanche's 2-1 shootout victory in an NHL hockey game in Denver on Thursday, Jan. 16, 2014. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

NHL on NBCSN: Devils fight to stay in heart of playoff race vs Avs

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NBCSN continues its coverage of the 2013-14 campaign tonight when the New Jersey Devils host the Colorado Avalanche at the Prudential Center at 7:30 p.m. ET. In addition to NBCSN, you can also watch the game online.

Going into the season, not much was expected of the Devils or Avalanche. That’s where the similarities between their seasons end.

The Colorado Avalanche, fresh off making Joe Sakic the team’s executive vice president and Patrick Roy the head coach, became the talk of the league when they kicked off their campaign with a 14-2-0 run. They’ve hit a couple bumps in the road since then, but haven’t dramatically slowed down. They’ve only endured a single three-game losing streak and one four-contest slump on their road to a 35-14-5 record.

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Rookie Nathan MacKinnon has been everything they could have hoped for after being selected with the first overall pick, but their roster isn’t substantial different from the one that finished last in the Western Conference in 2013. Instead, they have succeeded largely by getting more out of the same guys and goaltender Semyon Varlamov in particular.

Varlamov has rebounded from a rough 2013 campaign thanks in part to Roy and goalie coach Francois Allaire’s guidance. Colorado recently rewarded Varlamov for his comeback with a five-year, $29.5 million extension.

Meanwhile, the New Jersey Devils’ roster is substantially different from what it was even last season with far more mixed results. To be fair, Devils GM Lou Lamoriello can’t really be blamed for that. From a short-term perspective, the single worst thing to happen to New Jersey over the summer was Ilya Kovalchuk deciding to “retire” to get out of his contract and move to the KHL.

The Devils were forced to scramble to overcome the offensive void he left and while Jaromir Jagr has done a remarkable job, especially at the age of 41, they were struggling to find the back of the net even before Kovalchuk left.

Even a strong season out of goaltender Cory Schneider hasn’t been enough to turn the tide. All he’s been able to do is keep them afloat so that while they’re shy of a Wild Card spot, at least they’re still very much in the race.

In fact, given that only two points separate second and sixth place in the battle for Wild Card spots in the Eastern Conference, every game is still critical for the Devils. At the same time, the Avalanche could use a win as they try to stay in the battle for the Central Division title against the formidable St. Louis Blues and Chicago Blackhawks.

Columbus giving prized rookie Werenski ‘every opportunity to run the power play’

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The Blue Jackets aren’t easing Zach Werenski into his freshman campaign.

Werenski, the highly touted blueline prospect, has been tasked with running the Columbus power play during the exhibition campaign — often as the lone defenseman with four forwards — and it looks like a role he might reprise throughout the regular season.

Even though he’s yet to play an NHL game.

“I want to give him every opportunity to run the power play,” head coach John Tortorella said after an OT win over Nashville, per the Blue Jackets website. “He certainly did a good job of that tonight. We’ll keep on giving him opportunities and we’ll see where we go.”

More: Looking to make the leap: Zach Werenski

The Werenski hype train has been full steam for just over a year now. The eighth overall pick in 2015, Werenski spent two highly decorated years at the University of Michigan before turning pro at the end of last season.

Dispatched to Columbus’ AHL affiliate in Lake Erie, the 19-year-old had a fantastic professional debut. He was a major catalyst on the Monsters’ defense, scoring 14 points in 17 playoff games en route to the Calder Cup championship.

“The skill set he has — his size, strength and poise with the puck, he’s a complete player,” said Monsters coach Jared Bednar (now the head coach in Colorado). “To be able to step into our lineup in intense games and get the job done, it’s impressive especially for his age and that’s why everyone’s so excited about him.”

All signs point to a very talented — and young — Columbus defense this year. It was already assumed 21-year-old Seth Jones and 23-year-old Ryan Murray were going to play major roles, and now it sounds like Werenski will be leaned on just as heavily.

Which means it’ll be interesting to see what happens to the vets.

Jack Johnson averaged over 24 minutes per game last year, a figure that will undoubtedly decrease. It’ll also be curious to see what happens to David Savard, who was playing more than 23 minutes a night — do remember that, at the start of last season, the Jackets gave Savard a hefty five-year, $21.25 million extension.

The playoff race in the West could be ‘tighter than ever’

ST. LOUIS, MO - MAY 9:  Goalie Kari Lehtonen #32 of the Dallas Stars makes a save against Kyle Brodziak #28 of the St. Louis Blues in Game Six of the Western Conference Second Round during the 2016 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at the Scottrade Center on May 9, 2016 in St. Louis, Missouri.  (Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images)
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The NHL’s Western Conference should be wild all season, perhaps as much as ever as parity reigns and points are tough to come by on any given night.

A slew of teams have a shot at advancing to the Stanley Cup finals.

The defending Conference champion San Jose Sharks, who had five players in the World Cup of Hockey finals , certainly appear to have a chance to be among the final two still skating in mid-June. That alone would be a feat because no team from the conference has pulled it off since the Detroit Red Wings, now an Eastern Conference team, won the Stanley Cup in 2008 and came within a win of repeating.

Chicago, Los Angeles, Anaheim and St. Louis will likely be among the contenders. Dallas, too.

The Blackhawks and Kings, who alternated as champions from 2012 to 2015 and won five Cups in a six-season span, failed to even make it out of the first round last in 2016.

Both teams certainly have a chance to bounce back this season.

“This is my sixth season in the Central Division and this looks like the most challenging year yet,” Blues coach Ken Hitchcock said Thursday in a telephone interview with The Associated Press. “The crunching between the top and bottom started last year, and it’s going to be closer this year.”

Hitchcock and Stars general manager Jim Nill both believe the teams that were at the bottom of the conference last season on moving up.

“The Winnipegs and the Colorados are going to be better teams,” Nill told the AP. “I think it’s going to be tighter than ever.”

How tight?

“Everyone has a shot,” San Jose’s Logan Couture said.

 

Related: There’s only one ‘vision’ in Vancouver this season, and that’s winning

 

Tough blow for Blues: Schwartz out ‘at least four weeks’ with elbow injury

ST. LOUIS, MO - FEBRUARY 23: Jaden Schwartz #9 of the St. Louis Blues shoots the puck against the Columbus Blue Jackets at the Scottrade Center on February 23, 2013 in St. Louis, Missouri.  (Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images)
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The St. Louis Blues will have to start the season without one of their most dangerous forwards, Jaden Schwartz.

Schwartz “will miss at least four weeks after injuring his left elbow during a training camp practice on Sept. 29,” the club announced today.

It’s another frustration for the 25-year-old winger. Schwartz was limited to just 33 games last season, after fracturing his ankle in October.

As for this latest injury, Blues head coach Ken Hitchcock originally predicted that Schwartz would only need a “couple of days off.”

St. Louis opens its regular season Oct. 12 in Chicago. If Schwartz is out until the end of October, he’ll miss nine games.

Related: Schwartz signs five-year extension

More bad news in Dallas: Janmark (knee surgery) out 5-6 months

PITTSBURGH, PA - OCTOBER 22: Mattias Janmark #13 of the Dallas Stars looks on against the Pittsburgh Penguins during the game at Consol Energy Center on October 22, 2015 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Matt Kincaid/Getty Images)
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Earlier this week, we passed along word that Stars forward Mattias Janmark was spotted on crutches at the team’s practice facility.

Now we know why.

Janmark suffered a knee injury that requires surgery, GM Jim Nill said on Thursday. The procedure is expected to sideline the Swedish forward for 5-6 months, putting his return in the neighborhood of February-March of next year.

It’s a big blow for the Stars.

After surprising onlookers by making the team out of camp last year — a “great story,” according to GM Jim Nill — Janmark, 23, went on to have a pretty successful rookie campaign, scoring 15 goals and 29 points in 73 games.

He also fared well in the playoffs, with five points in 12 contests.

Today’s news compounds what’s been a lousy September in Dallas. The club previously lost Tyler Seguin (heel), Cody Eakin (knee) and Ales Hemsky (groin) to injuries, and saw Russian forward Valeri Nichushkin sign in the KHL.

Looking at the schedule, Janmark projects to miss anywhere between 60-70 games this season, assuming the 5-6 month timeline is accurate. That’s a big chunk of man power to replace.