The reigning Stanley Cup champion Colorado Avalanche are looking to snap a three-game skid Monday in Denver when they face the visiting Vegas Golden Knights in a clash of teams short-handed on defense.

The Avalanche welcomed star Nathan MacKinnon back into the lineup on Saturday, but they still dropped a 6-2 decision to the Toronto Maple Leafs at home.

Colorado, which is battling for the fourth spot in the Central Division, was coming off a 5-4 defeat to the Los Angeles Kings on Thursday and 6-3 loss to the Arizona Coyotes two nights earlier.

A win over the Golden Knights at Ball Arena would give them their first victory since beating Nashville 3-2 in overtime on Dec. 23.

Michael Bunting had two goals and the Leafs spoiled MacKinnon’s return after he missed 11 games with an upper-body injury. MacKinnon played 22 minutes and managed three shots but failed to get a point.

“He had his legs underneath him,” coach Jared Bednar said of MacKinnon. “I thought his timing might be off a little bit, but obviously Nate keeps himself in great condition, came back ready to skate and play. It’ll take him a game or two to figure out the timing of it.”

Goaltender Alexandar Georgiev was pulled after allowing five goals on 24 shots.

Without MacKinnon, the Avalanche were led offensively by Mikko Rantanen (team-leading 24 goals and 45 points) and Cale Makar (nine goals, 34 points).

The 24-year-old Makar is the driving force behind Colorado’s power play and penalty-killing unit. His role has taken on added importance because of injuries to other defensemen, including Josh Manson and Bowen Byram. Makar played a game-high 25:35 against the Leafs.

“He can push 30 minutes on a lot of nights and be real effective,” Bednar said.

The Golden Knights are also playing with a banged-up defensive corps. In their latest contest on Saturday they blew a 4-2 third-period lead but rallied to beat Nashville 5-4 when unheralded defenseman Nicolas Hague scored on a slapshot in overtime.

Hague, who usually plays in the shadow of defensemen like Shea Theodore, Alec Martinez and Alex Pietrangelo, is getting more playing time because of injuries to Theodore and Martinez.

Coach Bruce Cassidy was pleased the Knights were able to regroup and win in overtime.

“It shows some real resiliency in the group to stay with it,” Cassidy said. “You don’t want to give up a lead in the third ever, but sometimes it happens. Good for us to keep our heads on straight.”

The Golden Knights are led offensively by Chandler Stephenson, who has 13 assists and 17 points in his last 10 games. Stephenson had a goal and two assists in the win over Nashville.

He has been on a roll since moving back to center with Jack Eichel out of the lineup. Stephenson has improved his points total in each of his first three seasons with the team and is on track to make it four in a row.

In the teams’ only other matchup this season, Valeri Nichushkin scored in the third period and Georgiev was clutch down the stretch as the visiting Avalanche beat Vegas 3-2 on Oct. 22.

–Field Level Media