The Colorado Avalanche spent two weeks together during the Phase 3 Training Camp practicing and rekindling its team chemistry heading into the playoffs. For the defensemen, they picked up right where they left off with one another.
Since the team reconvened, the D-men have mostly skated in the same pairings as they did during the regular season, often with Ryan Graves matched with Cale Makar, Nikita Zadorov with Ian Cole, and Samuel Girard with Erik Johnson.
"I think it comes back pretty quickly," said Graves. "I think it's not so much the chemistry, I think it's more just getting the feel for it again and playing games. We've played together quite a bit this year, we've played with pretty much everybody. I've played with G, E.J., Z, Coler, so it's not really a big deal for how we mix them up. It's more just getting your feet under you and getting back in game shape, which I feel is coming along for us right now. I feel pretty good. I think all the rest of the guys are feeling like they're ready to go, so the chemistry comes naturally I think."After getting their feet under them in training camp, the reunited blueliners are getting warmed up for the postseason by practicing against the likes of Gabriel Landeskog, Nathan MacKinnon and Mikko Rantanen, some of the top forwards in the NHL.
"For me, it's good to go against them because you're not going to really face a better line throughout the league," Johnson said. "It's a good test for me and it makes you better so going against guys like that in practice helps a lot."
The blueliners are finding their consistency again and strengthening the already strong bonds. After rebuilding chemistry and playing against a variety of Colorado's forwards, the defensemen are helping the Avs prepare for virtually any playoff matchup.
Colorado ranked sixth in the NHL in goals against per game (2.71) and allowed the third fewest total goals in 5-on-5 (115).
"We're actually one of the best defensive teams all season," said MacKinnon. "I think we're top eight or something in defensive metrics--along with obviously our goal scoring, which is kind of what we're known for, but we definitely play on both ends of the rink. We take pride in that. We're very deep, and we have a lot of talent as well."
Part of the defensive success can be attributed to the Avs' depth on the blueline, which also features veterans Mark Barberio and Kevin Connauton and up-and-coming prospects Bowen Byram and Conor Timmins.
"I think our depth at all positions has improved over the last few years," said head coach Jared Bednar. "If you look at this year on the backend, we've got our regular guys who've been playing (well). But you look at the development of a guy like Timmins, Bo Byram, who has shown much better in this camp than he did in his first camp in the fall, after a really good season in junior again. And then you take guys like Connauton, who had limited playing time with us this year, but when he did come up to play, he played well. And guys like Barbs (Mark Barberio). You start adding that all up and we have eight, nine, 10 guys in there and some guys who have played for us in the past and been really good minor leaguers for us the last few years, like (Anton) Lindholm. So, there are more options there and depth than we've had in years past."
For Byram and Timmins, their trip with the team with the bubble in Edmonton gives them invaluable experience to keep developing and possibly suit up in a playoff game for Avs.
The future on for Colorado continues to be bright, and the current players certainly see the talent developing in the prospect pipeline.
"I think that's great for the Avs to have good prospects like [forward Shane Bowers and Byram] coming up, so that's going to be good for us," said Girard. "They are young, I mean they're probably my age, but they still are good players. They're going to be up soon, so it's good for us just to have a great future."