The Colorado Avalanche is hoping to shake off a slow return from the NHL’s mandatory All-Star break with three important road games ahead this week.
The team takes on the Ottawa Senators on Thursday, Detroit Red Wings on Friday and Buffalo Sabres on Sunday in what has become a stretch of supreme significance if the playoff picture is to remain bright and within reach.
“We have to start winning,” defenseman Erik Johnson said after practice on Wednesday. “We played like crap at home. If we want to be there at the end, we need to start winning some games and not squandering points away. We’ve got to be much better on the road and hopefully take advantage of some road cooking.”
After going 0-3-1 in their most recent homestand, the Avs are looking to restart their winning ways on the road. One thing the players are looking forward to is quality time spent together, whether on the plane, at meals or in the hotels. This kind of close proximity, according to Johnson, helps strengthen the foundation of the team.
“We’re together more. You have a lot of dinners together,” he said of being away from Denver. “At home, you just kind of see each other at the rink and then go home and do your thing. On the road, you’re together a little bit more, bond a little bit more, have a little bit more fun together, and sometimes that can be the recipe for success.”
Colorado is not only looking to take home precious points during this coming road trip; the squad is also in need of more goalscoring after averaging only 1.75 markers per game since the end of the short All-Star hiatus.
“We just have to play with more intensity, play harder,” center John Mitchell said. “We’ve been doing a decent job getting pucks to the net, but we’ve just got to get bodies there, get rebounds, [and] score on our second opportunities when we have them. But first and foremost, we just have to play with more intensity.”
According to Mitchell, the Avalanche’s recent downturn isn’t a matter of complacency or feeling comfortable with its current playoff berth, however unstable that wild-card position may be.
“Just because you’re in, we’re not in first place,” he said. “We’re just in the playoffs, the last seed there. I don’t think anybody really thought that. Just for whatever reason after the All-Star break, that’s just how we’ve been paying as of late. We’ve just got to get back to the intensity.”
So called ‘free points’—those against a team from the Eastern Conference that have no bearing on the other clubs in the Western Conference—present the Avs with an opportunity to gain some ground and rediscover the swagger that brought an 18-8-2 record in the months of December and January.
“We did really well against them the last couple years, so hopefully that can be something where maybe a switch in the system or playing in a different conference might do something for us,” Johnson said. “The bottom line is we just have to play better and find a way to get some wins.”
“It's huge, obviously. This is big for us,” Mitchell added. “We certainly need a victory.”
On Sunday, Colorado forward Mikhail Grigorenko will be returning to Buffalo for the first time since he was traded. Although the game falls on Valentine’s Day, there’s no love for the match from the young Russian; he’s focused on the next game only.
“Just got to get ready tomorrow for Ottawa and then we’ll go from there,” he said. “Obviously, it’s going to be a big game for me in Buffalo, but the next game is against Ottawa. I’m just getting ready like everybody else for tomorrow’s game.”
Grigorenko said that he isn’t spending much time dwelling on his return to his first NHL city.
“For me, it’s really important to play really good every game,” he said. “So it doesn’t matter who we play against, especially [because] we only play twice against Buffalo. There’s 80 other games that you need play good, so I don’t really care who we play against.”
According to head coach Patrick Roy, forward Jack Skille (head) and goaltender Reto Berra (ankle) won’t be on the trip for now. Skille has missed the previous two games and Berra has been out since Dec. 27. Both players are on the injured-reserve list.