TAMPA, Fla.--After spending the past four games watching away from the ice, Colorado Avalanche forward and captain Gabriel Landeskog makes his return to the team's lineup.
Landeskog's suspension that was handed down by the NHL is officially over, and he will retake his former spot on the Avs' top line in tonight's game against the league's best club, the Tampa Bay Lightning.
"I'm excited. I think that is a given. I'm really excited to get back," Landeskog said following Colorado's morning skate at Amalie Arena. "Any time when you're sitting out, it's can be frustrating and it can be hard because you're not a part of it. Win or lose, you want to be out there."
Landeskog last played on Nov. 25 when the Avalanche faced the Calgary Flames to begin a five-game homestand. Late in the first period of that contest, he was penalized for an illegal cross check to the head of Calgary's Matthew Tkachuk while battling for defensive position at the side of the net. After having a hearing with the Department of Player Safety two days later, the league handed down additional punishment, a four-game suspension.
Landeskog's mindset coming out of his league-mandated break is to not change the way he plays--being a power forward that isn't afraid to be physical--but he has also said that he needs to have better control of his stick at all times.
"I'm going to go out there and play hard," Landeskog said. "I think I learned my lesson and paid the consequences, so I'm excited to get back out there and start playing."
Video: Gabriel Landeskog returns to Avs lineup
Prior to the suspension, Landeskog was playing some of his best hockey of the season, and his line with center Nathan MacKinnon and right wing Mikko Rantanen was one of the most dominant in the NHL. The Avs captain was leading the team in goals with nine and had recorded 13 points (seven goals and six assists) in his previous 14 contests.
Avalanche head coach Jared Bednar expects to see the same type of play from Landeskog in his return to game action.
"He's rested. He's anxious, ready to go, full of energy," Bednar said. "I think that energy can be contagious for our group here tonight. We need a little bit more that, and he's certainly excited and ready to go."
The suspension only prohibited him in playing in games, so Landeskog has remained around the squad and has been practicing every day. Still, his presence on the ice and in the dressing room once the puck dropped was missed by his teammates.
"He's a great player and he brings a lot on the ice, his leadership, and he's a calming presence in [the locker room]," said defenseman Tyson Barrie. "You can't replace a guy like that."
While Landeskog was out, the team closed out its second-longest homestand of the season with a 1-3-0 mark, losing its last three outings.
His view of those defeats is the same as Bednar's and many others that have watched the club over the past week: lethargic starts have put the Avs behind the eight ball, so to speak.
"It just seemed to me that we were just easing our way into games, and it was hurting our first periods," Bednar said. "We've talked about it as a group. When we're playing our best, we come out flying in the first period. That is what we're looking to do on this road trip starting tonight."
Tampa Bay is a formidable opponent for the Avalanche. The Lightning leads the NHL with a 19-6-2 record and 40 points, and the club has four lines that are all equally dangerous offensively.
Landeskog's return may help the club fix its sluggish opening frames, as he's been working hard on his conditioning for the past 10 days and is ready to transition that into a game.
"I'm probably in better shape now before I sat out," Landeskog said. "We got a good conditioning staff and the assistant coaches make sure we're in good shape when we come back. I feel good."
NEMETH MAKES HIS RETURN
After nearly a week of skating and practicing with his teammates, defenseman Patrik Nemeth returns to Colorado's lineup after being out for the last 12 contests with a lower-body injury.
"It's been boring and frustrating," Nemeth said of rehabbing for the past month. "We decided to make sure it was 100 percent before I got back. Make sure it's healed properly instead of being dinged up the whole year. It was just better to shut it down, and make sure it's good."
Among the games he missed were two in his hometown of Stockholm, Sweden, last month for the SAP NHL Global Series against the Ottawa Senators. Nemeth's last contest was the one before those overseas affairs, Nov. 5 at the New York Islanders.
"It's tough to sit out, especially when your home," Nemeth said. "Every time you sit out, it's frustrating. You want to help the team and you want to be a part of it. You want to be a part of the solution if you lose, and you want to be a part of the fun things when you win. You always want to play."
Video: Patrik Nemeth returning to the Avs lineup
Nemeth has almost exclusively been paired on the backend with Tyson Barrie, and the duo will be reconnected this evening.
"I think we need him in the lineup. We need some heaviness and some experience down there," Bednar said of Nemeth, who stands at 6-foot-3 and 219 pounds. "[Tampa Bay is] a real quick team, can put you under pressure. We have had some guys back there that have been in and out of their game, and we got to make sure that we have at least six guys going tonight back there."
Nemeth is in his first season with the Avs after being claimed on waivers from the Dallas Stars prior to the start of the campaign on Oct. 3. The rear guard has a goal and five assists in 12 contests this year.
LINEUP MIX UP
The Avalanche will use a more nontraditional game roster this evening against the Lightning, dressing 11 forwards and seven defensemen.
Colorado will go back to its previous top-nine prior to Gabriel Landeskog's suspension, with the Avs captain playing with Nathan MacKinnon and Mikko Rantanen on the No. 1 group. The rookie/roommate line of J.T. Compher, Tyson Jost and Alexander Kerfoot is also put back together after a brief hiatus, while the Carl Soderberg-centered trio with Blake Comeau and Matt Nieto remains the same.
Video: Avs coach Jared Bednar on facing the Lightning
There will be quite the realignment on defense, as Erik Johnson will play with Nikita Zadorov, Mark Barberio with Anton Lindholm, and Tyson Barrie with Patrik Nemeth. Samuel Girard will be the extra blueliner, but there will likely be changes on all the D-pairings throughout the game.
"We're going to be rotating them all around," Bednar said. "Depends on the shift."
Forwards Gabriel Bourque and Nail Yakupov and defenseman Duncan Siemens will be the healthy scratches.
Goaltender Semyon Varlamov will play in his fifth straight contest in net.
*Line combinations based on 5-on-5 drills during morning skate
Gabriel Landeskog - Nathan MacKinnon - Mikko Rantanen
Tyson Jost - Alexander Kerfoot - J.T. Compher
Matt Nieto - Carl Soderberg - Blake Comeau
Sven Andrighetto - Colin Wilson
Nikita Zadorov - Erik Johnson
Anton Lindholm - Mark Barberio
Patrik Nemeth - Tyson Barrie