BUFFALO, N.Y.--With Semyon Varlamov out for the season after having hip surgery to fix his injured groin, goaltender Calvin Pickard has been the Colorado Avalanche's main man between the pipes.
It's been an opportunity for the young goalie to see key NHL reps and showcase his skills in the best league in the world.
Pickard will play his 30th game of the season and sixth in the last seven on Thursday night as the Avs take on the Buffalo Sabres at KeyBank Center, and he looks to help the club out of its current funk. Colorado is winless in its last four outings, and Pickard knows that record is not good enough for either him or the team.
"Definitely need to be better. We had a good run for a couple home games. We were winning at home and Pittsburgh was tough," Pickard said. "Rangers, Islanders back-to-back, we were close at the Garden, close to winning at the end, but the wheels kind of fell off at the Barclays Center. It's another chance tonight to get back on the wagon and get a win for us."
The goaltender has already had moments during his young career where he had to be "the guy" to help his club to victories, and this situation with the Avs is another one of those instances.
Pickard played 50 games with the Lake Erie Monsters of the American Hockey League in 2014-15 as fellow goalie Sami Aittokallio was dealing with an injury, and he appeared in 247 contests during his four-year junior career with the Seattle Thunderbirds from 2008 to 2012.
Video: Goaltender Calvin Pickard on the Avs' recent play
He was relied on so heavily with the Thunderbirds that he finished his time in Seattle as the Western Hockey League's all-time leader in minutes played (3,630) and saves (2,085).
"It made me know I had to be sharp every night," Pickard said of what he learned from playing so much in his major-junior days. "I had to be the difference. I had to play mistake free. I have to do that in the NHL. Everyone has to do that. You have to limit those mistakes and be the difference."
Pickard and the Avalanche will look to break this string of losses tonight against a young Buffalo Sabres club that is fighting for a playoff spot. It is Colorado's fourth game of a season-long, five-game road trip and the first half of a back-to-back that concludes in Carolina on Friday.
Anything short of a victory is unacceptable for the Avalanche.
"It's a results-based business," Pickard said. "We need to get wins. We can definitely play better, so we have to find a way to win."
RUSSIANS RETURN TO BUFFALO
It will be a homecoming of sorts for Russian forward Mikhail Grigorenko and defenseman Nikita Zadorov, both first-round draft picks of the Buffalo Sabres that began their careers with the NHL club before being acquired in an offseason trade with the Avs in 2015.
This will be Grigorenko's second time returning to Buffalo as a member for the Avs. He recorded an assist in a Valentine's Day loss last season. For Zadorov, Thursday night will be his first for him at KeyBank Center as a visitor; he was with the San Antonio Rampage of the American Hockey League at this time in 2016.
"It's nice. I spent some time here," said Zadorov, who did face the Sabres once last year in Denver on Jan. 20, 2016. "I have some friends in here, and it's always nice to come back and play some hockey games in here."
Grigorenko scored in the Avalanche's last contest on Tuesday in New Jersey and is looking to build off that performance against his former club.
"It's a big game for me," Grigorenko said of playing in Buffalo. "I want to show people that I can play and do good and try to win that game. I'm looking forward to that game."
Head coach Jared Bednar expects big things from both players in their return to the city on the shores of Lake Erie.
"It's got to be exciting for them, I think," Bednar said. "Anytime you come back and play your old team, you know a lot of people on the other side of the hallway and on the other bench, it should be a fun game for them to come in and play well. That added motivation will hopefully help those guys tonight."
Colorado's only lineup change will be in net as Pickard will take the spot of Jeremy Smith, who made 37 saves in his NHL debut on Tuesday against the Devils.
Defenseman Patrick Wiercioch will be a healthy scratch for the third consecutive game.
Erik Johnson took part in an optional skate this morning with nine of his teammates, but the rear guard has yet to participate in a team practice with the Avs since breaking his leg on Dec. 3.
Gabriel Landeskog - Nathan MacKinnon - Mikko Rantanen
Mikhail Grigorenko - Matt Duchene - Matt Nieto
Blake Comeau - John Mitchell - Jarome Iginla
Andreas Martinsen - Carl Soderberg - Joe Colborne
Fedor Tyutin - Nikita Zadorov
Mark Barberio - Cody Goloubef
Francois Beauchemin - Tyson Barrie