In a couple of days, the Colorado Avalanche will take on the Vegas Golden Knights along the south shore of the largest alpine lake in North America in the 2021 NHL Outdoors at Lake Tahoe.
But before the team could make the trek west from the Rocky Mountains to the Sierra Nevadas, the squad welcomed back a few faces to the ice in a 45-minute practice at Ball Arena on Thursday.
Forwards Matt Calvert, Tyson Jost, Gabriel Landeskog and Kiefer Sherwood were all full participants in the session, and all will be eligible to be put in the lineup for the outdoor matchup with Vegas.
Calvert has missed seven games so far this year with an upper-body injury. He last played on Jan. 24 against the Anaheim Ducks but has been skating on his own for the past few days before joining the group on Thursday. The veteran had 25 points (12 goals, 13 assists) in 50 contests with the Avs last season and has recorded one helper through six outings this year.
"I am feeling good. Obviously, No. 1 priority is your health, and I was fortunate enough to see some great doctors and some specialists and hopefully get the problem figured out," said Calvert. "I have skated for about five or six days when the boys were on the road, and I am feeling great. I am ready to come back and play my game and not a better stage to come back on than going to Lake Tahoe to play an outdoor game."
Video: Byram, Calvert and Jost before the trip to Lake Tahoe
Thursday's practice was the first time that Jost, Landeskog and Sherwood were able to be on the ice with the team since being placed on the COVID-protocol list during Colorado's eight-day layoff two-weeks ago. While on the list, they were not able to practice, travel or play in any games and had a mandatory quarantine.
"It wasn't fun, I mean that's a long time to sit out. I mean I am all alone for 14 days, but I feel good and I guess it's the world we live in," Jost said after the session. "I am glad I am healthy right now, and I feel good on the ice and my symptoms weren't too bad. I am just glad everyone's healthy and we are back now. I mean the COVID thing is scary, and like I said I am just glad we are all healthy."
Since returning to game action from that layoff, the Avs have faced the Golden Knights twice and the teams have split the matchups in the four-game set, both one-goal contests. Vegas won 1-0 on Sunday before Colorado picked up a 3-2 victory at T-Mobile Arena on Tuesday.
Jost and Calvert took reps on a line with Pierre-Edouard Bellemare and Valeri Nichushkin during the session while Landeskog was on a trio with J.T. Compher and Logan O'Connor, but head coach Jared Bednar has not made any lineup decisions for Saturday's game yet.
"I want to watch these guys practice for a couple days. The thing you got to remember is even though all those guys have been key components to our team, they've been out for a significant amount of time," Bednar noted. "So, 14 days without going on the ice, some of them will have just a couple skates before we play Saturday. It's not a lot of time, but we'll try and make the right decisions on our lineup for the outdoor game.
"I know it's a game that everyone wants to play in. But, whether its guys that have been playing for us recently, evaluating their play, and guys coming back, sort of evaluating what we think they might be able to bring to us--whether it's in the same role they had when they left or somewhat of a diminished role because of the lack of practice time and ice time. We will make those decisions over the next couple days as we watch these guys and then sort of structure our lineup with what we feel is best to try and go get us the two points against Vegas."
Colorado is participating in its third outdoor game and second in as many seasons. The Avs hosted the Detroit Red Wings in the 2016 Stadium Series at Coors Field (5-3 loss) and hosted the Los Angeles Kings a year ago at the 2020 Stadium Series at the Air Force Academy (3-1 loss).
The Avalanche is the fifth team to play an outdoor game in consecutive seasons and the first since Toronto (2016-17 to 2017-18).
"I'd like to see us go out and play our game and play with energy that we normally play with in a regular game, and we've been doing that very consistently to this point this year and I don't see why it should be any different in the outdoor game," said Bednar. "It's going to be a great setting, our guys are looking forward to it, we should be excited about it. It's a big stage, but probably most important for me as a coach is it's a chance to go ahead in this mini-series we got going with Las Vegas.
"We want the two points. Basically, we approach it mostly the same as we do any other night. We are hoping that the guys have a little bit more energy, and a little bit more passion to just put us over the top against a real good team in Vegas on such a big stage."
Video: Jared Bednar before the trip to Lake Tahoe
With it being the second year in a row that the Avs have played in the open air, it will be the second NHL outdoor game for most of the guys on the team, but it will be the first for rookie Bowen Byram.
"I am really excited, it will be a lot of fun especially playing a team like Vegas, it will be a fast game," said Byram. "Not really too sure what to expect. I mean I think it's kind of a different year for everyone with no fans, I mean usually the outdoor games are in front of a lot of people. I think it will be interesting but definitely looking forward to it."
Colorado and Vegas are set to conclude their four-game set at Ball Arena on Monday.
Cale Makar was on the ice for practice after missing the past two games with an upper-body injury. He also was a participant in Tuesday's morning skate and was a game-time decision for the matchup with Vegas and even took the ice for warmup prior to the matchup. In 11 contests this year, the second-year defenseman is second on the Avs with 12 points (one goal, 11 assists).
Defenseman Samuel Girard remains in COVID protocol and will miss the game on Saturday but is expected to resume skating this weekend.
"Girard did pass his cardiac test so he is working out off the ice right now, and Saturday is the first day he's able to get on the ice," said Bednar.
Still on Colorado's injured list are defensemen Erik Johnson and Dennis Gilbert and goaltender Pavel Francouz, while netminder Hunter Miska is presently on the COVID protocol list.
"[Johnson] and Frankie are still out long term," Bednar said in an update. "I think [Johnson] is feeling better, but its day-to-day so you don't really know. Like one day he is doing better than the next and I am getting updates, but as of now he is not a player for us in the near future."
PRACTICE LINE COMBINATIONS & ROSTER MOVES
95 Andre Burakovsky - 29 Nathan MacKinnon - 96 Mikko Rantanen
20 Brandon Saad - 91 Nazem Kadri - 72 Joonas Donskoi
92 Gabriel Landeskog - 37 J.T. Compher - 25 Logan O'Connor
13 Valeri Nichushkin - 41 Pierre-Edouard Bellemare - 11 Matt Calvert - 17 Tyson Jost
36 T.J. Tynan - 12 Jayson Megna - 15 Sheldon Dries - 44 Kiefer Sherwood
4 Bowen Byram - 7 Devon Toews
27 Ryan Graves - 8 Cale Makar
34 Jacob MacDonald - 22 Conor Timmins
2 Dan Renouf - 88 Kyle Burroughs
31 Philipp Grubauer
30 Adam Werner
42 Peyton Jones
After practice, the Avs made a few roster moves. The team activated Matt Calvert off of the injured-reserve list and reassigned forwards Sheldon Dries and Jayson Megna and defenseman Jacob MacDonald to the taxi squad.
The Avalanche also reassigned forwards Miikka Salomaki, Kiefer Sherwood and T.J. Tynan and goaltender Hunter Miska to the American Hockey League's Colorado Eagles.
Tyson Jost on the upcoming outdoor game: "I mean last year was so cool. It was such a cool venue (at the Air Force Academy) and this year it's going to be even cooler just because of the atmosphere and just the setting we are playing in. I know for myself, I grew up playing on an outdoor rink on my lake and we'd always make a little outdoor rink by our cabin there, so it's going to be pretty cool. I am excited, I know everybody is."
Bowen Byram on playing 23-plus minutes in each of the first two games against the Golden Knights: "It's tough to play against Vegas, they are a good team. They are fast, they are physical, they are big, they are strong. I felt good though, I mean feel good. I feel like I am in good shape, so I am just trying to kind of build my game every night, get better after every game, learn from my mistakes and like I said just trying to get better. It's not easy playing teams like Vegas with so many big, skilled guys. Just trying to limit the scoring chances against and move the puck quickly."
Head coach Jared Bednar on limited practice time moving forward this season: "It's probably going to get worse actually, the slowest part of our season has already happened, which is hard to believe but that's the truth of it, especially with the week off for COVID reasons. It's just the nature of the business now. In the past few years even with 82 games you don't get a lot of practice time, a lot of the teaching is done on video and you get out and you try to make the most of short practices without wearing guys down. With the condensed schedule, the amount of injuries that we've had, guys missing time because of COVID, you end up taxing other guys in games and you want to make sure that they are rested. They have to be rested in order to stay healthy so you don't pile up on the injuries and we are trying to take advantage of that. It's difficult, but it's nothing different than any other team in the league is facing at this point."