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Johnson Could Return Saturday Against Sabres

The Avalanche defenseman has missed the last 35 games

by Ron Knabenbauer @RonKnab /

CENTENNIAL, Colo.--Defenseman Erik Johnson knows what the deal is for a professional hockey player. Sometimes you have to sacrifice your body for the good of the team.

That's what he did when he blocked a Tyler Seguin slap shot in front of the net during the Colorado Avalanche's game against the Dallas Stars on Dec. 3. Johnson denied the chance and the Avs soon cleared puck, but he broke his fibula in the process and has been on the shelf ever since.

After missing 35 games and more than 12 weeks because of the injury, the Avs blueliner is expected to be out for only one more contest. Johnson hopes to be back for Saturday's game at Pepsi Center against the Buffalo Sabres.

The rear guard was a full participant in Wednesday's practice at Family Sports Center, donning a regular burgundy jersey for the first time since getting hurt. He had been wearing a red non-contact sweater in his return to the ice for the past few weeks.

"I'm feeling good. I'm going to play on Saturday," Johnson said immediately following the on-ice session. "I'm going to get a couple more skates in, assuming all goes well, come off the IR and play Saturday at home."

Head coach Jared Bednar spoke soon after and confirmed that the team is shooting for a Saturday return for Johnson, but that the Avalanche will still evaluate how he does over the next two days.

"That's looking like the target date here if everything keeps going the way it's been progressing," Bednar said after practice. "He's coming on the road trip, and he has another couple skates with us, and hopefully everything goes good and we'll get him in there on Saturday."

Video: Erik Johnson on recovering from injury

Johnson will skate Thursday morning in Nashville before the Avs' game against the Predators and then Friday at practice back in Colorado.

His recovery might have taken a little longer than anticipated. The break occurred in his lower leg, which can be difficult for a foot to get used to when returning to skates.

"Everything felt good," Johnson said of his first practice with hitting and skating at full speed. "I think I'm going to battle a little soreness for the next several months, but the bone's healed and I'm not going to do any more damage. I'm ready to go."

Bednar noted that the team will likely ease Johnson back into the lineup and not give him top minutes or key situations right away.

Johnson was first among Colorado defenseman with 11 points (one goal, 10 assists) at the time of the injury. He was averaging 22:00 a game and still leads the club in short-handed ice time, having played 3:24 a night. The 28-year-old was also one of the top contributors on the power play, with five of his assists coming during the man advantage.

"We all know the role that he plays on our team, and he's been out for a significant length of time. He'll probably get eased into that a little bit," Bednar said. "He's a guy that can handle a lot of ice time, so as his legs start to feel better and he gets his timing back and gets in some games, it's a lot of minutes that we can use him in our lineup back there."

Video: Coach Bednar's post-practice press conference

His teammates are thankful to have him back, as they've watched firsthand the hard work he's put in, including the early mornings in the training room and the gym, to get back and finish the season.

"He looks great. Looks rested, obviously," said forward Nathan MacKinnon. "He is very focused. EJ, I think he's a guy that is a leader on the team because he takes care of himself on and off the ice. He's always ready to play, plays hard. He loves the game. He did a really good job of rehabbing himself. It was a bad injury. It was a bad break, so it's good to see him back."

The Bloomington, Minnesota, native's return should give the club a boost both on and off the ice. One of the more lively players in the locker room when it comes to his personality, he's extremely focused on the task at hand when he takes the ice and has become that overall solid defenseman that every team craves.

"He is a big presence in the room for us and on the ice especially," MacKinnon said. "He's 6' 5" and is really physical. When he's out there, other teams take notice and so do we."

Video: MacKinnon talks about the return of Johnson

The injury kind of happened in an unlucky way, as the puck hit Johnson in the perfect spot right above the skate where there was minimal protection.

He finished the shift, but it wasn't until he went back to the locker room to get checked that he for sure knew something wasn't right.

"You don't assume the worst right away. I just thought, 'Get up and try to finish your shift,' and was able to get the puck out on the penalty kill," Johnson said. "I knew something was wrong, I had some weird sensations. When I got back to the training room, they asked me to put some weight on it, and there was some clicking going on. It just didn't feel right. I got the X-ray and it was pretty obvious right away that it was broken.

"Luckily I didn't have to have surgery or anything. It was a pretty straightforward rehab process. It took longer than I wanted, but sometimes you just have to let those things heal and let time dictate."

Both Bednar and Johnson said there was no consideration of shutting him down for the season, as the Avs' workhorse D-man wanted to get back on the ice and help his teammates in what has been a trying campaign for the club.

"Let me tell you, there is no worse feeling than to be out of the lineup and watch your team struggle," Johnson said. "That was probably the hardest part for me. Not being able to do anything to help the guys. You feel for the fans and your teammates and your coaches that have to come to the rink every day. They wake up every morning and try to play their best game. It's not like they've been coming in and trying to make things go this way; there is no lack of effort. It's just the way the season has been going."

Video: Tyutin talks about the return of Erik Johnson

Johnson's return comes at a time when the Avalanche defensive corps was beginning to be short staffed. Nikita Zadorov suffered a season-ending injury at Monday's practice, fracturing his ankle during a collision with a teammate.

When Johnson returns, there will likely be a transition period for the Olympian and former NHL All-Star to get back up to speed and to his old self on the ice, but he'll come in rested and eager for the final 23 games.

"I'm off for nearly two months without skating, so there is going to be a definite amount of rust I'll have to work off, but most of that has been worked off in the last handful of practices," he said. "I'm ready to go, or otherwise I wouldn't be standing here."

The rear guard admitted that he wished he was rejoining the squad in the middle of a playoff hunt, but to wear the Avs logo and play in the best league in the world is enough motivation for him in the final weeks of the season.

"I wish we were in a different situation, but every time you put on the Avalanche jersey, you have to have a big sense of pride. Any time you step on the ice in the NHL, it means something," Johnson said. "So no matter what situation you are in as a team, you have to go out and play your hardest no matter what."

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