The 2021-22 season is here for the Colorado Avalanche and this campaign brings a new opponent, a return to the Central Division and more fans in the stands. All aspects of the game that the Avs are looking forward to.
To begin the new year, Colorado faces a familiar foe in the Chicago Blackhawks at Ball Arena tonight.
"Ready to rock. It's an exciting day," said Avs captain Gabriel Landeskog. "For whatever reason, this training camp has felt long. I think that's probably because the last one last year in January was just like six days to get going, get moving and then right into games, so it's felt a little long, but we are excited for tonight."
The Avalanche returns to the Central Division in 2021-22 after competing in the West Division last season. With the expansion Seattle Kraken beginning play this year and joining the Pacific Division, the Central will now have eight teams with the addition of the Arizona Coyotes and the Avs will play 26 games against their division rivals.
Tonight's outing is the first of four meetings between Colorado and Chicago in 2021-22 and the first since the teams met in Denver on Dec. 21, 2019. The teams will meet up three times in January to close out the season series.
"Very excited to see a different jersey and play different players, haven't played against these guys in a year and a half," said Landeskog. "It's exciting and obviously next week we head on the road, but before that we got a big one here, a division game at home and then Saturday as well. We will start with this one and go from there."
Video: Gabriel Landeskog before opening night vs. Chicago
Colorado is facing Chicago to open the season for the third time since relocating to Denver (also 2003-04 and 2010-11, both at Ball Arena). The Avs won both of those openers, picking up a 5-0 victory on Oct. 10, 2003, and earning a 4-3 win in overtime on Oct. 7, 2010.
The Blackhawks finished the 2020-21 campaign sixth in the Central Division and added some new faces during the offseason and are also welcoming back their captain Jonathan Toews.
Six players on Chicago's roster are expected to make their team debuts including forwards Henrik Borgstrom, Tyler Johnson and Jujhar Khaira, defensemen Seth Jones and Jake McCabe, and goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury while Toews is set to play his first game since Aug. 18, 2020, after he did not play last season while he was dealing with chronic immune response syndrome.
"It changes a lot when you add a goalie like Fleury back there, he is an elite goalie and we have seen a lot of him," Landeskog said. "But also, they have Patrick Kane, he is a game-changing talent, not even a talent but he's a superstar in this league, he can change a game on his own, so you got to keep an eye on him. And Toews, it's exciting to have a guy like that back in the league and back playing. He is a guy that has done it all for so many years that he adds another element to their lineup as well and Seth Jones adds another one on the backend."
The Avalanche finished the 2020-21 season with a 39-13-4 record (82 points), winning the West Division and Presidents' Trophy and finishing with its highest points percentage in franchise history (.732), breaking the previous mark of .720 set in 2000-01. But the team knows the 82-game campaign is a marathon, not a sprint.
"It is one day at a time and one game at a time, you just can't have it any other way. It sounds boring but it is what it is and that's how we approach it," said Landeskog. "For us, we had a good regular season last year, but nothing is going to carry over into this year, it's not going to happen automatically. We have to earn everything we get, and we have to establish ourselves again as a team and we are excited to do that."
Colorado begins its season at home for the fourth straight year, the 13th time in the last 16 seasons and for the 15th time in the last 19. Though unlike last year when the squad opened the campaign against the St. Louis Blues in an empty Ball Arena, the Avs will have the support of Avs Faithful behind them.
"I mean that is something we've really missed. Sometimes you don't realize what you have until its gone, right? That's the saying and that couldn't be any more true when it comes to our hockey fans," said Landeskog. "It brings so much to the atmosphere and after playing in empty building and half-empty buildings for over a year it is very exciting to bring them back in and see a full house tonight. It is going to be very exciting, and it will take some time to get used to but nonetheless very exciting."
The Avalanche will be without Nathan MacKinnon and Jared Bednar for the contest as both are unavailable in COVID protocol.
Colorado recalled forward Jayson Megna on Wednesday morning and he is expected to play against Chicago on a line with Helm and O'Connor. The Avs now have 13 forwards and seven healthy defensemen on its roster.
"The first game that I have had actually that's been a season opener in my 10-year career so I'm really excited to be here. Obviously, it's such a good team so and a chance to do some big things this year so looking forward to tonight."
Video: Jayson Megna before playing in the season opener
Darcy Kuemper was the first netminder off the ice from morning skate and is expected to get the start in the crease. Kuemper appeared in 27 games for the Arizona Coyotes last season before the Avs acquired the 31-year-old in the offseason.
Sampo Ranta is also set to play in his first NHL regular-season contest. Based on opening-day rosters announced by the league, he is the only player with experience in the Stanley Cup Playoffs who is yet to appear in an NHL regular-season game.
View: Avalanche vs. Blackhawks Projected Lineup
The Avalanche franchise owns a 23-11-7 (.646) all-time record on Opening Night, the second-best mark in the NHL (min 10 games).
Colorado/Quebec is 28-9-4 (.732) all-time in home openers, the second-best mark of any team (min 10 games played) behind only Minnesota (14-2-4, .800). The Avalanche is 16-6-3 (.700) in home openers since moving to Denver, which includes a 14-5-2 (.714) mark at Ball Arena.
Erik Johnson is entering his 14th NHL season and 12th with the Avalanche. His 12 seasons rank fourth in franchise history behind only Joe Sakic (20), Adam Foote (17) and Milan Hejduk (14).
Johnson and Foote are the only defensemen to appear in 12 or more seasons with Colorado/Quebec and Johnson is the longest current tenured athlete of any of Denver's four major sports teams.
Gabriel Landeskog enters his 11th NHL season and 10th as team captain. He was the youngest captain in NHL history when he assumed the role at 19 years, 286 days on Sept. 4, 2012, a title he held for four years before Connor McDavid (19 years, 266 days) got the "C" on Oct. 5, 2016.
Landeskog is the second-longest serving captain in franchise history behind only Joe Sakic (17 seasons overall, 16 consecutive). Only four players have been captain of their current teams longer (15th Sidney Crosby, Pittsburgh Penguins; 14th Jonathan Toews, Chicago Blackhawks; 13th Alex Ovechkin, Washington Capitals; 12th Ryan Getzlaf, Anaheim Ducks).