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Colorado Avalanche hopeful forward Nathan MacKinnon can return Sunday vs. Dallas Stars

Comfortably in first place in the Western Conference, but chasing the NHL's No. 1 overall seed, the Colorado Avalanche could soon be boosted by the return of their best player.

Nathan MacKinnon might return for the Avalanche on Sunday, when they take on the Dallas Stars, Colorado coach Jared Bednar said on Tuesday after practice.

MacKinnon, 26, limited to just 31 games this season, has missed three straight contests with a concussion and a facial fracture, and will not be in the lineup Thursday, when Colorado meets the Tampa Bay Lightning.

But Bednar said MacKinnon, who has nine goals and 43 points, skated without his teammates on Tuesday, his first action of any kind on the ice since the injury occurred last month.

In a battle of elite teams from opposing conferences, MacKinnon ran into Boston Bruins veteran forward Taylor Hall, a hit that pushed MacKinnon's stick back into his face. It was an ugly scene in Boston's 4-3 overtime victory Jan. 26, but the hit was not malicious, and more incidental than anything else. Hall was not disciplined by the league.

"We wanted to give him the time through the [NHL All-Star] break to make sure he was feeling good, so when we came out of the break, he can start ramping up to play. We got into the break and we kind of started targeting Sunday for his return date," Bednar said. "Now, everything's going to have to go smoothly and he's going to have to make the right steps here over the next few days in order to be ready to go."

The absence of MacKinnon, who had surgery on his nose not long after the incident, lessens some of the star power in the Lightning-Avalanche game. Tampa Bay, the two-time defending Stanley Cup champion, is challenging for the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference, as well as the top postseason spot overall.

"We were hoping it could be Tampa on Thursday," Bednar said of MacKinnon's return. "But, as we got into the break we kind of felt that maybe he'd need a little bit more time."

MacKinnon would have been front and center at All-Star Weekend in Las Vegas had it not been for the injury. He was in line to be the captain of the Central Division squad, and it would have been his fifth All-Star appearance.