DENVER -- The adjustment period has ended for Ryan O'Reilly, who missed training camp and the Colorado Avalanche's first 19 games during a contract dispute that lasted longer than either he or the team would have liked.
"Definitely there are certain areas that need to be better, but we don't have time for that," the 22-year-old center said of his game. "I have to start making an impact right now and do whatever I can to help the team win."
No doubt. The Avalanche sit last in the Western Conference with a 10-13-4 record and take a three-game losing streak into Monday night's game against the Chicago Blackhawks at the Pepsi Center.
While the Blackhawks would like to avenge their 6-2 loss to the Avalanche on March 8 -- which ended their streak to start the season of 24 consecutive games with at least one point -- the Avalanche need to get back on track quickly or face the prospect of missing the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the third year in a row.
Losing gnaws at O'Reilly; it isn't unusual to see him sprinting up and down the Pepsi Center stands after defeats to relieve his frustration. He'd almost rather talk about the contract dispute that caused him to miss nearly half the shortened 48-game season.
"In the summer, it's a business," he said. "I had to make the best business decision, but once I signed and put on the jersey it's the same thing. So that's all in the past. I'm trying to win every game. Everything is the same. No one looks at what you make; they just look at how you treat people and how hard you work and how you play. I don't feel any different. I'm the same person I was before."
O'Reilly became a restricted free agent after last season, when he set career highs for goals (18), assists (37) and points (55) while leading the Avalanche in scoring. After turning down contract offers that would have paid him about $3.5 million per season, he signed a two-year, $10 million offer sheet tendered by the Calgary Flames on Feb. 28. The Avalanche wasted little time in matching the offer, which included a prorated $1 million salary for this season, a $2.5 million signing bonus, and a $6.5 million salary for next season.
"I'm excited to be playing hockey again and to be with these guys again," he said. "I feel great, my body feels great. I feel comfortable again. I do have good energy. The last couple games, I've had some good chances and I haven't been able to put the puck in the net, and that's frustrating. I have to stay strong and make sure I'm taking care of my own end first. It's going to come. I know I have to be better."
O'Reilly has two goals, four assists, two penalty minutes and an even plus/minus rating in eight games, with all of the points coming in the past six games. He's played the point on power plays, won 53.7 percent of his faceoffs and is averaging 18:04 in ice time. He started by centering a line with John Mitchell and Milan Hejduk, but has since been anchoring a unit with Gabriel Landeskog and Aaron Palushaj.
"I think he's getting better every game, and with every opportunity he has a chance to skate with us, whether at practice, pregame skates or games," Avalanche coach Joe Sacco said of O'Reilly. "He's starting to get up to speed the way that we would have hoped. It's going to take a little bit of time. He missed a lot of hockey."
O'Reilly stayed in shape over the summer, in part, by paddle boarding on Lake Huron with his brother Cal near their Ontario cottage, and he played 12 games in Russia with Metallurg Magnitogorsk in the Kontinental Hockey League during the lockout. He practiced with the London Knights of the Ontario Hockey League after returning to Canada while awaiting an end to the lockout and to his contract impasse.
O'Reilly said the Russian experience was especially rewarding. It helped to have English-speaking coaches in Paul Maurice and Tom Barrasso, along with Cal, who was a member of the team but injured his back.
"Unfortunately, we never got to play together," O'Reilly said. "But it was a great experience to be around that culture. I was treated very well over there. You take in as much as you can. I picked up a couple basic (Russian) phrases that I've said to (Semyon Varlamov, the Avalanche's Russian goalie) a couple times just for a good laugh."
There hasn't been much levity lately. The Avalanche have been outscored 15-7 in the three-game losing streak that followed emotional back-to-back wins against the Blackhawks and San Jose Sharks.
"Of course we have to put a run together," O'Reilly said. "To make the playoffs we need to. I think we have the right group for it, and we need to start doing it now."
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