Thirty games remain on the schedule, and some much needed rest and relaxation this past week should go a long way in helping the Avalanche continue fighting its way up the Western Conference standings.
“The season is a grind, and when you get some opportunities to rest your body and heal up mentally and physically, I think it’s good,” rear guard Erik Johnson said. “For me, coming off the layoff there, I think I missed eight games [due to injury], it would have been nice to kind of get back into the swing of things a little bit quicker, but the break will always help.”
Johnson confessed that his time was spent disconnected from his day job, his focus on cleansing his body and soul before returning to Denver.
“I hit the gym a couple times, but other than that just kind of recharge mentally, physically,” he said of his sabbatical. “We ended out in L.A., so I just stayed out there and just hung out by the ocean. Just relaxed. It was a lot of fun just to recharge and come back refreshed and ready to go.
“I just kind of unplugged from hockey.”
Now it is time to get back to business, and naturally that means facing off against one of the best teams around, the Chicago Blackhawks.
“They’re obviously the gold standard of the league—the best team year in, year out usually,” Johnson said. “They have just great consistency to their game. They’re always right near the top every year. It’s always a good test, a good challenge. They’re always fun, entertaining games I think the fans like to watch.”
Tonight’s tilt against the Central Division powerhouse is of particular note for the 27-year-old defenseman because it will be his 500th NHL contest. Although it took him longer to reach the milestone than he would have preferred, Johnson was enthused about the looming achievement.
“Injuries kind of slowed me down a little bit as far as games played,” he said. “I think I’ve missed over a hundred with injuries. It should probably be closer to 650 or something like that… but that happens to everybody. There’s periods of time where it goes by fast and periods of time where it feels slow, but it’s been fun the whole time and that’s all you can ask for.”
When he takes the ice at 7 p.m., Johnson will become the first blueliner from the 2006 draft class to have skated in 500 matches and just the 72nd American-born rear guard in NHL history to do so.
“It’s nice to definitely hit that, especially being an American guy, growing up in Minnesota,” said Johnson. “Not too many American defenseman have even played that many games, so I just want to keep going and continue to play well and play as many games as I can.”
Now 499 contests into his career, Johnson confessed that he’s learned to stay even-keeled day-to-day and shift-to-shift. That has been the biggest difference when comparing himself to the wide-eyed defenseman that entered the league with the St. Louis Blues on Oct. 4, 2007.
When asked if any of his long list of games stood out as particularly memorable, he didn’t take long to respond.
“Probably my first NHL goal, that was cool. It was the game-winner,” Johnson said. “You always remember that as kind of your ‘Welcome to the NHL’ moment. Games like that are always fun, where you hit a milestone like that. It was my second game, so it was 498 games ago. So it goes by pretty fast.”
His first marker came on Oct. 6, 2007, at the Los Angeles Kings, and he hasn’t slowed down since. He has 210 points (55 goals, 155 assists) to date.
DUTCHY THE ALL-STAR
While most of the Avs were healing up and preparing for the long stretch ahead of them, forward Matt Duchene was still hard at work at the NHL All-Star Game festivities in Nashville, Tennessee.
Named as Colorado’s lone representative, Duchene went to the event ready to represent his club, which was less shaking hands and kissing babies and more playing country tunes with stars and showing off his talents in the Honda NHL Breakaway Challenge and the All-Star Game itself.
The game featured a new, 3-on-3 format pitting small teams of players from a single division against their NHL comrades from around the league. To Duchene, the whole thing was a resounding success.
“I think it was awesome. I think everybody loved it. We loved it as players,” he said, noting that the Central Division loss in Game 2 stung a bit. “I know we were ticked off when we lost. I think every team that lost a game in that was disappointed, and it was definitely competitive.
“I think people loved this year’s skills competition, and I think the game was probably the best they’ve ever done.”
A country music fan through and through, Duchene soaked up every second of the weekend, which included performing songs on stage with Lee Brice to kick off the festivities.
“I didn't know [I was playing] until the day of, so I got together with him for about 15 minutes in his bus before,” Duchene said of the experience. “We went over both songs [for] just a couple minutes. They’re pretty straight forward, so it wasn’t too tough to get it going.”
All in all, Duchene is one of many satisfied customers coming out of the weekend. He got a chance to reflect on what he has done this season, connect with his peers and now he’s ready to get back to work.
“It’s a chance to really just enjoy the game and the league and what you’ve accomplished in getting there. It’s a time to kind of sit back,” he confessed. “You don’t get that during the season at all. There’s no time to really celebrate anything because you’re on to the next thing right away. That was kind of a good weekend for that for me, but again it’s switching gears and getting back to work tonight. This is the most important thing.”
Avalanche head coach Patrick Roy said it after practice on Monday and confirmed it again on Tuesday morning: Jarome Iginla will be playing wing alongside Duchene and center Nathan MacKinnon.
“I was thinking of keeping Jarome on the left side and Dutchy on the right side. It seems to me that Dutchy is very comfortable on the right side,” Roy said of the adjustment. “What I like is Jarome has his one-timer on the off wing, and it’ll certainly help him to take more shots. I always leave it to them to decide which side they’re more comfortable [on]. If Dutchy and Jarome decide to switch, I’m also very comfortable with it.”
The move sees veteran winger Alex Tanguay repositioned to skate with Mikhail Grigorenko and Chris Wagner.
The expected combinations are as follows:
Jarome Iginla—Nathan MacKinnon—Matt Duchene
Gabriel Landeskog—Carl Soderberg—Blake Comeau
Cody McLeod—John Mitchell—Jack Skille
Mikhail Grigorenko—Chris Wagner—Alex Tanguay
Francois Beauchemin—Erik Johnson
Nick Holden—Tyson Barrie
Chris Bigras—Zach Redmond