It is something to look forward to, take advantage of and then cast away nearly as quickly.
“We definitely welcomed it. Three days to heal some bumps and bruises and get away from the rink a little bit is never a bad thing,” said Colorado Avalanche rear guard Erik Johnson. “Hopefully it helps us going forward. I think we play every other day here until the All-Star break, so [we’ve] got to make sure we take care of ourselves.”
“I think it’s nice for everyone, not just our team but across the whole league. I’m sure all the guys, the coaching staff, are all very excited. They’re happy that they have this little break,” veteran Daniel Briere said. “It’s a chance to refocus, re-energize and get ready. It almost feels a little bit like the halfway point. You play ’til Christmas, and then after that it feels like the intensity really hikes up after Christmas. Teams are fighting for playoff spots so it gets more and more crucial.”
With the 72-hour hiatus over, it’s back to business for the Avs, who have gone 4-0-2 in their last six games—including a big 5-0 victory over the St. Louis Blues on Tuesday. The Chicago Blackhawks are in town and will provide no easy matchup after their own rest period.
“Both teams are in the same situation, so it makes it fair. You get a morning skate and then get right back into it,” said Briere from Pepsi Center. “It’s not like we haven’t played for months. It’s only been three days, but it certainly felt like it the first five or 10 minutes.”
Shaking off the rust isn’t always as easy as it sounds. Skating helps, but there is a certain amount of familiarity required to forget the family and presents and focus on the task at hand.
“One thing I can tell you is I’m happy we had a practice this morning,” said Briere. “I know these guys last year said they had to fly to Chicago without a practice and play that game. I don’t know how they did it. Obviously the score wasn’t favorable, but it’s tough.”
Getting right back into the swing of things is a benefit for youngster Nathan MacKinnon. There’s no time to worry about adjustments or counting the days until the action returns.
“It’s nice. We play right away, no practice really. Just morning skate. Last year we flew on game day to Chicago and played and got spanked,” MacKinnon said. “This year, we’re in a bit more of a routine. Slept in our own beds last night and woke up, had a morning skate. It’s pretty normal.”
Tonight’s tilt figures to be another closely played game between two finesse teams, one near the top of the Western Conference standings and the other looking to climb. Colorado’s advantage is that it is playing some of the best hockey of the season, overcoming a slow start to look at the second half of the season with a .500 record (13-13-8).
“It was definitely probably the best stretch we played all season. That and New Jersey, I think,” Johnson said of the pre-holiday win over the Blues. “For us when we can play a game like that, it sets a standard ‘cause we know what we’re capable of now. So we’ve got to make sure we continue to have games like that. It’s tough to do though. Everyone’s got to be on the same page. Everyone’s got to be doing their job, not trying to overextend or anything like that ‘cause we see what we can do now with a type of game like that.”
That’s the type of effort that the Avalanche will look to depend upon against the Blackhawks, a team that is lethal up and down the lineup.
“They have four solid lines, three big scoring lines that can hurt you at any time. So you have to be prepared for that, try to limit their chances, keep them on the outside as much as possible,” said Briere. “You know they’re going to make plays at times, and hopefully we react well.”
“I think we need to use our speed. They have a very fast team as well. So we’re going to have to match that defensively, especially on the back check and things like that, and hold onto the puck down low,” said MacKinnon. “They have some offensive defensemen that jump up in the rush. We don’t want to give it away and have to back check all night.
“It’s going to be a tight game, I think. Usually it is. Sometimes it breaks out offensively, but I think it will be a tight one for sure.”
Despite the pressure of an all-important divisional matchup, the unadulterated joy of playing a quality opponent is enough to get MacKinnon excited to get back on the ice.
“It’s so fun playing Chicago. It’s sold out for us,” he said. “It’s a pretty hostile crowd. I’m very excited for tonight.”
The puck drops at 7 p.m. MT at Pepsi Center.
The Avalanche was so successful last season that more of the same was expected by many heading into the 2014-15 campaign. When things didn’t start that way, it took some extra work to find consistent mojo. Now in the midst of a season-high, three-game winning streak, Avs head coach Patrick Roy said letting go of the pressure of last year has helped.
“I think we’ve tried to reset. We’ve been living a lot on last year, and right now we’ve tried to move on and press on the reset button. Making sure that we play our games and work hard every night,” Roy said in his morning conference. “The last game against the Blues, I thought we were very sharp in every area. Even in the morning skate I could sense that we had a lot of confidence. We’re playing with more confidence. We’re moving the puck well. We’re shooting the puck well.”
With lessened internal expectations, the team has been able to shore up some inconsistencies. This was readily apparent in the win over St. Louis.
“Our neutral zone was excellent. We came though clean more often than not. I think against Detroit we had a really tough time coming through the neutral zone. We didn’t have much possession. That’s probably what saw us with a low amount of shots there, and [against] St. Louis we were really flying through the neutral zone,” said Johnson. “When our team’s coming with speed, we’re tough to handle. Our exits and our neutral zone transition are the biggest keys to our game ‘cause when we come with speed on the forecheck, we’re tough.”
A strong middle-ice presence starts with a solid defensive system and ends with offensive pressure. When those three areas come together, the Avalanche starts flying.
“Defensively we’re playing a lot better. Obviously [Semyon Varlamov] and Calvin [Pickard] have both bailed us out on a lot of occasions. You don’t get shutouts or give up one goal just by playing good defense. You need your goalie to make a few key saves, which they have, but I think we’re doing a better job defensively limiting the chances against,” said Briere. “And we’re playing with a lot more confidence, it seems. You get a couple wins in a row, guys are a lot looser, and we’re starting to feel that and also see that on the ice.”
Goals have been flowing—the Avs have outscored the opponent 11-2—during the 4-0-2 run and a key factor in that has been Johnson, who has five goals in his last five games and is riding a three-game goal streak.
“Last year, I think he brought his game to another level and this year is even better. It’s amazing how much more confidence he’s playing with since last year, and it’s nice to see him play so well,” said Roy. “Every night we know we can count on him. Every night he’s sharp in the back end. He’s very involved in the play… He’s shooting the puck with a lot of confidence. He deserves a lot of credit for what’s going on for him.”
Yet, Johnson is quick to deflect the success to those perhaps as equally deserving of the credit.
“The biggest thing is there’s been a lot of net-front traffic. Early in the season, we didn’t have a lot of guys going to the net. This time we have guys there screening the goalie. So we’ve got to give a lot of credit to the guys that stand there, who often don’t get the accolades on the boxscore,” he said. “Without them in front of the net, a lot of those goals probably wouldn’t be going in. A testament to everyone that’s just kind of getting back and playing a simple way and screening the goalie, which makes a big difference.”
With help coming from the back end, the forwards are starting to figure it out as well. Jarome Iginla (one goal, four assists) and Alex Tanguay (three goals, two assists)—playing on a line together with John Mitchell—each have five points in their last three games.
“It’s tough to put a finger on it. Sometimes they just go in, and we’re getting some good bounces now. I thought we were doing some good things at the beginning of the year [but] we just couldn’t score, and now some pucks are starting to go in,” said MacKinnon. “[We’re] feeling more confident, I think.
“Some of the older guys are starting to feel it now, like Iggy and Tangs. They look good. I think everybody’s playing pretty solid.”
The Goalie Situation
With three netminders on the active roster, what better way is there to reference Colorado’s goaltending circumstances than as a ‘situation?’
“It’s a good situation for us. We said before the game against the Blues that we were going to rotate, and tonight it will be Calvin to play…and then after we’ll make decisions,” said Roy. “But the way he’s been playing, he sort of deserves that start tonight. We were very happy to see Varly come in and have a shutout against St. Louis.”
Goalie - COL
GAA: 2.06 | Sv%: .939
With Varlamov having missed time in three separate stretches due to a pesky groin issue, Roy said he is cautious about sending rookie phenom Calvin Pickard
back to the Lake Erie Monsters in the AHL. Ultimately, the conclusion that Roy and Joe Sakic
, general manager and executive vice president, come to will be in the best interests of both the club and Pickard’s development.
“We’ll make decisions in the next four or five days. We want to make sure that Varly is 100 percent before making whatever [choice]. From there we’ll make a decision, but everybody knows our plan is to allow Calvin to play a lot of games,” Roy said. “It was crystal clear between Joe and I that if he’s going to be on the bench, he’s not going to be here. If he plays he will stay here, but if he’s not playing we believe that it’s better for him to go to the minors and play a lot of games.”
Little has been said of keeper Reto Berra with Pickard being the surprise of 2014. That doesn’t mean Berra has been forgotten.
“We haven’t given up on him. We know that we’re going to need him ’til the end of the season. I can say right now that he’s working harder in practice, competing better in the practice,” said Roy. “Now he needs to rebuild his confidence. Obviously, for a goalie it’s an important thing.”