DENVER (AP) — This was a promising sight for the Colorado Avalanche: Nathan MacKinnon going through on-ice drills in an optional practice. The speedy forward with the pinpoint-accurate shot appears on track to be back in the lineup Wednesday night against Arizona after missing the last three games with an upper-body injury.

It’s a big lift for a banged-up team.

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Nathan Mackinnon of the Colorado Avalanche skates against the San Jose Sharks at Ball Arena on Jan. 28, 2021.

Nathan Mackinnon of the Colorado Avalanche skates against the San Jose Sharks at Ball Arena on Jan. 28. (Photo by Michael Martin/NHLI via Getty Images)

“I do expect him to play,” Avalanche coach Jared Bednar said after practice Tuesday. “He’s our on-ice leader and we need that offensive punch.”

The injury report remains extensive even with crossing MacKinnon off the list. The Avalanche are without defensemen Conor Timmins (upper body), Dennis Gilbert (facial surgery), Bowen Byram (upper body), Cale Makar (upper body) and Erik Johnson (upper body). They’re also without forward J.T. Compher (upper body) and goaltender Pavel Francouz (lower body).

Hence, the need for an optional practice. Bednar just can’t afford to tire his players out. So on Tuesday some rode, while others got treatment or went through stretching exercises. There were players who logged ice time, including MacKinnon.

He hasn’t played since leaving the game in the third period at San Jose last Wednesday following a hit near his head. Sharks forward Joachim Blichfeld drew a two-game suspension for the contact.

The Avalanche have gone 1-1-1 in MacKinnon’s absence, including a 3-2 loss to Arizona on Monday.

“To get him back in the lineup, the speed element, leadership element, a big-time game changer,” said forward Jayson Megna, who was recently recalled from the Colorado Eagles of the American Hockey League.

Megna was one of the player who took the ice for the optional skate. It was a chance to watch MacKinnon at work. MacKinnon has five goals and a team-leading 17 assists this season.

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“Just getting to watch him, learn how he does some things — stick handling, shooting, some of his edge work stuff — is really beneficial to me,” Megna said.

The Avalanche have outshot teams by a 102-69 margin over the three-game stretch without MacKinnon. They have nine goals to show for it.

“We’re not capitalizing on enough of our chances,” Bednar said. “Nate, when he gets into scoring areas and draws attention to himself, he’s either usually ending up with a real good chance or his linemates are. It’s going to be a big lift for us to get him back.”

The Colorado defense has held its own despite being decimated by injuries. The Avalanche limited Arizona to just 14 shots on goal, which marked the 13th straight game they’ve kept their opponents under 30 shots. The team record is 14 in a row, from Feb. 21 to March 22, 2001.

As for Makar’s return, Bednar didn’t have a timetable. The standout blue liner has missed six games.

“Until I can hear from our medical staff or from Cale himself, that he’s good or ready to play or gearing up to play our next game, then I don’t know when that’s going to be,” Bednar said. “It could be as early as tomorrow or it could be two months from now. I have no idea.

“My statement last game was the only guy I’m convinced who’s coming back tomorrow or anytime in the very near future is Nate, because that’s the only guy I have information on that says, ‘Yeah, I’m ready to go and I’m playing.’”

By PAT GRAHAM, AP Sports Writer

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