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Johnson Having Himself A Season

by Ryan Boulding / Colorado Avalanche

Colorado Avalanche defenseman Erik Johnson is having himself a season.

Just 35 games into the campaign and he’s already tied his career high goal total with 10, thanks to a first period rocket from the faceoff circle on Saturday night.

He leads Avalanche defensemen in goals (10), is second in points (20) and tops the entire roster in time on ice per game with a 24:09 average.

His 10 tallies puts him in a four-way tie for first in the NHL in defensive scoring as well.

“Last year, I think he brought his game to another level and this year is even better. It’s amazing how much more confidence he’s playing with since last year, and it’s nice to see him play so well,” said Avalanche head coach Patrick Roy after Saturday’s morning skate. “Every night we know we can count on him. Every night he’s sharp in the back end. He’s very involved in the play… He’s shooting the puck with a lot of confidence. He deserves a lot of credit for what’s going on for him.”

Johnson has been a big part of Colorado’s turnaround after a slow start to the 2014-15 season. He’s been an unstoppable madman offensively, scoring six goals in as many games, and is in the midst of a career-long, four-game scoring streak. In fact, Johnson is the first Avalanche defenseman to score in four straight games since Sandis Ozolinsh between Nov 13-20, 1996.

“He’s playing great. Everything he’s touching is going in the net,” said center Matt Duchene. “It’s fun to watch a guy when they’re that hot. Hopefully, he can keep it going for us.”

Johnson’s ability to find twine consistently has helped take a load off of the offense, allowing the forwards to do what they do best.

“Anytime a defenseman can chip in, I know it helps the forwards a little bit. They feel a little bit less pressure. I’ve always been a guy that’s been offensive,” said Johnson. “To contribute feels good, but I know I’m not relied upon every night to score, like I have been. But anytime I can add some secondary scoring and do what I’ve been doing, I know it helps the group.”

Johnson’s tally, the second of the game and the last the Avs would score in the 5-2 loss to the Blackhawks on Saturday, was a beauty of a clapper from the faceoff ring that beat goaltender Corey Crawford high over the glove on the short side.

It gave Colorado its second lead of the game.

The Avs got on the board early in the first, a sign of things to come, when Nathan MacKinnon broke the silence with a laser of a shot from the right dot. Using speed to burn through the neutral zone, MacKinnon flew around Blackhawks defender Johnny Oduya before ripping a shot past Crawford’s glove and into the net.

The lead was short-lived however, as Chicago forward Brandon Saad tied the contest nearly 30 seconds later with a shot through traffic at the far side of the Avalanche net that beat goalie Calvin Pickard.

The frenetic back and forth pace continued moments later when Johnson hammered his shot from the same circle as MacKinnon, nearly 1:20 after Saad’s tally.

Patrick Kane equalized the contest later in the frame, tipping a Duncan Keith shot at the back door of the Avalanche’s house for the tie once more.

Starting the middle stanza tied at two goals apiece, the Chicago power play would be the game changer on the night. Brent Seabrook scored on a slap shot in the second period and Patrick Sharp followed suit with a low shot from atop the crease in the third.

Kane added an empty netter for good measure with six seconds remaining in the contest. Colorado was unable to convert on three separate man-advantage chances, including a brief 5-on-3.

“Their power play was better than ours tonight. They were just able to find more than we did tonight,” said Duchene. “Picks played great. We didn’t play a bad hockey game. I think we played pretty hard. They’re a high-octane team. They get two power-play goals and an empty netter. At even strength, we’re even with them.”

“That was the difference. The one they took the lead with in the second was just a great shot. The one in the third was just an absolute fluke, just a really unlucky goal,” said Johnson. “We’ve gotten the job done all year on the P.K., and we’ll rebound and go over film.

“We’re a tough group to pre-scout because we always change. Our game plan is never the same going into any game. We’re always adapting and evolving and we’ll do the same thing going into next game.”

The match wasn’t over for the Avalanche until the final buzzer, despite trailing to start the final frame.

“We know they’re going to come out hard with a lead like that, but we have confidence in here that we’re able to win those games and come back,” said Duchene. “The fourth one obviously deflated us a little bit, but we kept pushing. If we got a quick one back, you never know what could have happened.

“We’ve got to keep our confidence and move on to tomorrow, and move on to St. Louis.”

The Avs have practice on Sunday before flying to St. Louis for Monday’s match against the Blues.

Neutral Zone Play

There have been many factors attributed to Colorado’s resurgence this season, but the most discussed one as of late has been the play in the middle area of the ice, between the blue lines. Cruising through the neutral zone with speed has allowed the Avalanche to create space and find shooting lanes.

“We’re moving the puck well. Our ‘D’ are doing a great job, and our forwards are getting open,” said Duchene. “It’s been a key to our success lately.”

The tactic—which was successful during last season’s Central Division-winning run—worked again against Chicago.

“I’m sure it was fun to watch as a fan. As players, it’s fun when the game’s going that fast and you can make plays. As clean as we were coming out of our zone, we were entering it just as clean in their zone,” said Johnson. “When we’re clean in our exits and clean coming through the neutral zone, we’re a very fast team. We’re a difficult team to handle off the rush.

“It’s fun to play like that. I think we’d like to minimize the chances that we gave up, but when we play like that on the attack it’s a tough group to handle.”

Said Duchene: “We would have liked to get more shots than we did, but I think there was a lot of good things in our game tonight.”

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