CENTENNIAL, Colo.--The Colorado Avalanche will have two players back in the lineup when the team takes the ice against the visiting Buffalo Sabres at Pepsi Center on Saturday night.
Defenseman Erik Johnson (broken leg) and forward Rene Bourque (head/neck) will both return from their respective injuries after lengthy absences.
"I expect them both to play tomorrow," head coach Jared Bednar said after Friday's practice at Family Sports Center. "It will be good to get some fresh bodies in the lineup, guys that are both hungry to get back in our lineup. So we're looking forward to it."
Neither player will jump right into the fray against the Sabres, a team Colorado faced on the road on Feb. 16. Instead, they will be eased back into their regular roles.
For Bourque, that means starting on a pairing alongside two of Andreas Martinsen, Mikhail Grigorenko and Carl Soderberg.
"He's going to go in on our fourth line with Martinsen and Grigo or Soderberg," said Bednar.
"The worst part about being hurt is getting back in shape but actually, even though I was out for the three weeks or whatever it has been, I've been skating quite a bit," Bourque said. "I think I was only off the ice for four or five days of that, maybe a little bit more. So it's not like I came back from a broken leg where I haven't been on the ice for a month. I actually feel pretty good for the amount of time I missed."
The 35-year-old native of Lac La Biche, Alberta, admitted that he wanted to return sooner but was just unable to make quick progress in his recovery.
"I don't know. I had a lot of problems with my neck. It just wasn't getting better and it finally loosened up a little bit," said Bourque. "It was just day-by-day. I was trying to get back as soon as I could and it just took a lot longer than I thought, but I'd rather be safe than sorry.
"I feel like I'm ready to step in and hopefully help the team out a little bit."
Bourque took part in his first full practice on Friday since he the game on Feb. 1 at Los Angeles after a hit from Brayden McNabb.
"It's fun. It's good. It's good to just get in the speed of the drills, get your feet moving," he said. "Just the speed of the puck, moving with the guys, having guys play with you 1-on-1, getting bumped a little bit; you've got to feel a little bit of all that before you get back just to get your feet under you and have some confidence in the game."
Johnson had already eyed a return on Saturday, but it helped him to have two additional days of skating to be sure he would be ready to go.
"I feel really good. The training staff did a really good job," Johnson said. "It wasn't a fun injury to go through, with the rehab process and everything, but I guess I'm kind of looking at the bright side. I didn't have to have surgery and I came back 100 percent, no ill effects. So I feel good. Really excited to get back out there and play in front of our fans."
The 28-year-old said there's no lingering effects of the broken leg, and he just needed some time to get comfortable on it again.
"A lot of it was contact and just banging it around against the boards and the glass and everything like that," said Johnson. "Took a couple shots off the leg, but it feels fine. I'm just excited to play again. It's been three months I think to the day tomorrow, so it's been a long time coming and I'm really excited, especially to come back at home in front of our fans and try and get a win for them at home."
Although Johnson's defensive partner has yet to be decided, one thing that Bednar knows for certain is the amount of playing time the rear guard will have to start out.
"The reality is he's been out for months, so we'll ease him back into it a little bit, and he'll determine that by how he's feeling," Bednar said. "[We'll] see what kind of game shape he's in. He's been working really hard off the ice. He always keeps himself in good condition, but playing games and having guys lean on you constantly is a different animal. He's been through a handful of practices now and he's been skating for quite some time, working hard. So we'll probably start him out just 5-on-5 minutes to start, a regular rotation, and see how all that goes. Then just keep evaluating him and ramp him up eventually back to where he was."
Ultimately, Johnson is just thrilled to be returning to action.
"Just want to get back out there and get back into the swing of things," he said. "There's going to be some rust to fight off and battle off. Coming off a layoff like this in the past, you kind of know what to expect. It's fun to be able to come back at home and play in front of our fans on a Saturday night."