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Colorado Avalanche's Nathan MacKinnon scores a goal during a game against the Montreal Canadiens, in Montreal, on March 13.Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press

Nathan MacKinnon collected a pass just inside his own blue line and started to gather speed.

In the blink of an eye, the lightning-quick Colorado Avalanche sniper blew past four penalty killers before beating Montreal Canadiens goaltender Sam Montembeault.

The highlight-reel effort in an emphatic 8-4 victory earlier this week made the expected rounds on social media.

It could have also served as another warning – the defending Stanley Cup champions are still here.

Following a gruelling playoff run and short off-season, Colorado had a tough start to the 2022-23 schedule thanks in part to a rash of injuries that saw MacKinnon, fellow forward Valeri Nichushkin, defencemen Cale Makar, Bowen Byram, Josh Manson and a host of others miss significant time.

Avalanche captain Gabriel Landeskog, meanwhile, has yet to play a minute of action as he continues to recover from knee surgery.

Despite all the adversity – gritty winger Artturi Lehkonen is the latest key piece to go down – Colorado has clawed back into the Western Conference playoff race, sitting third in the Central Division with games in hand.

“Been a challenge this year,” Avalanche head coach Jared Bednar said. “I don’t want to call it a (Stanley Cup) hangover, but getting ready to play to the same level you played at the year before right out of the gate was difficult.

“We were pretty comfortable where we were at I don’t think we were pushing to the level that we needed.”

MacKinnon said pivoting to a new season with Colorado’s victory still top of mind provided plenty of distractions.

“In training camp the Cup’s around and you have your ring ceremony,” he said. “You’re kind of living in the previous year.

“You’ve got to earn it again. It’s gone now. It’s over with and we’ve got to move on.”

MacKinnon said the team’s scuffling start led to “a couple of meetings” in hopes of getting things pointed in the right direction.

The message was clear – the patchwork lineup required on many nights simply had to find a way.

“You get into a lull,” MacKinnon said. “We were kind of waiting for help a little bit, and it wasn’t coming.

“It’s up to everyone to elevate their game.”

Colorado really started to turn things around with a six-game winning streak in January and had the NHL’s sixth-best record (10-4-3) since the all-star break heading into Wednesday.

Veteran forward Andrew Cogliano said last year’s run to the final helped prepare the Avalanche for this season’s roller coaster.

“There was a standard with this team that no matter the injuries, no matter the situation, we had to play to,” he said. “When we were going through all that stuff – and we still are – it made guys play above themselves.”

Makar said the team has simply been trying to manage the long list of pitfalls.

“Hopefully this will help us down the road,” said last season’s Conn Smythe Trophy winner as playoff MVP. “We’ve played with a lot of adversity in November, December there (without) our usual lineup.”

MacKinnon has been doing his part – and not just with jaw-dropping individual efforts – in particular since Jan. 1, sitting second to only Connor McDavid for total points with 47 over that span.

“I don’t think any of us are really surprised,” said Makar, who also won the Norris Trophy in 2021-22 as the NHL’s top defenceman. “He expects a high standard from himself. That draws everybody else to that standard.”

The Eastern Conference has garnered most of the headlines this season with a number of powerhouse clubs led by the juggernaut Boston Bruins.

The playoff picture in the West, meanwhile, could be a lot more wide-open once the seeds are set.

“A lot of parity,” Bednar said. “Everyone gives you a different challenge in a different way.

“As a coach, every team worries me a little bit.”

MacKinnon said the rest of his conference should feel the same about the Avalanche – as long as they land above the playoff cutline.

“We’re just trying to get in,” he said. “I’m sure no one wants to see us in the first round if we’re in a wild-card spot.”

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