Avalanche defenseman Erik Johnson does not put himself in the class of Minnesota Wild’s Ryan Suter, but that might be because he’s humble.
Sure, Suter has been a top defenseman in the NHL for nine seasons, but Johnson is no slouch – no matter what he says.
“In my opinion he’s the best D-man in the league,” Johnson said of Suter. “It seems when he’s on the ice their team plays with a lot more poise. He’s my pick for the Norris Trophy and he was last year, too. I think he’s a terrific player.”
So is Johnson, who had a career year and can be included in the conversation with guys like P.K. Subban and Suter. Johnson had a career high in assists (30) this year and tied his career high in points with 39, all while leading the Avalanche in ice time at 23 minutes per game.
It was a bounce-back year for Johnson, who had just four assists in the shortened 2012-13 season. He worked hard with assistant coaches Andre Tourigny and Adam Foote over the past year, but head coach Patrick Roy says Johnson did the work to get better.
“First of all, EJ is a really good hockey player. Right now he’s playing with a lot of confidence,” Roy said Thursday morning before Game 1 of the playoff series with the Wild. “In his case it’s more confidence than anything else. He deserves a lot of credit for what’s going on with him.”
Johnson has flourished in Roy’s style, which gives defensemen freedom to jump into the play. He scored nine goals this season after not netting one last year, but it’s his work against the opponents’ top line every game this season that has made him invaluable to Colorado.
“Obviously I’m not on Ryan’s level; he’s a perennial Norris Trophy candidate,” Johnson said. “I’ve been the guy on defense who has played the big minutes against the top line and I’ve embraced that role and I expect more of the same in the postseason.”
The Avalanche is playing its first postseason game since 2010 tonight, and it’s tough to tell who is more excited – the fans or the players and coaches.
Colorado has generated a buzz from opening night, and the playoff fever has grown with every exciting win.
“I know we’re going to have a great crowd tonight here, and I know our fans are going to be very excited,” Roy said. “All year our players wanted to please our fans. All year they wanted to make the playoffs. Here we are, we haven’t seen a playoff game in four years, and I’m sure our fans are as excited as we are and there’s going to be a lot of people here and I expect them to be on their feet.”
Pepsi Center has a throwback feel, going back to the days when Roy backstopped the team. Players witnessed it at Thursday’s morning skate.
“Just going out there and seeing all the white flags in the seats brings a lot of excitement to the building,” Johnson said. “I know Denver fans have been waiting a long time for a team to cheer for in the playoffs. This is going to be a fun night for everybody.”
–As expected, center John Mitchell (upper body) will not play in Game 1. Roy said earlier in the week he believes Mitchell will return at some point in the postseason, but he’s not putting a timetable on it. “To me it’s still a day-to-day situation,” Roy said.
–Defenseman Cory Sarich (upper body) is also scratched. Sarich hasn’t played since April 1, but Roy said he is improving. “He’s feeling better but hasn’t skated in 10, 12 days,” the Colorado coach said.