All three players have been out for extended stretches and their returns should boost the Avs as they look for six important points against Eastern Conference opponents.
“Mitchell, Bordeleau, Stuart, [Semyon] Varlamov, [Jesse] Winchester; They’re all going to come on the trip,” said head coach Patrick Roy following practice on Tuesday. “Stuart will play Thursday in Pittsburgh. He’s ready. He did the testing. He’s going to be ready to play on Thursday night.
“For the rest, we’ll see on the trip. We’ll reevaluate their situation every day.”
Stuart has been out of the lineup since Nov. 6 with a hamstring injury that was originally expected to be something minor.
“I was hoping a couple weeks, and after that couple weeks I wasn’t getting any signs of improvement. I tried skating a few times and it just didn’t go well,” Stuart said of his timeline to return. “It’s pretty brutal. I was off the ice for five weeks, so trying to get yourself back into game shape and game quickness and getting your mind up to speed is not easy.
“You’ve just got to work as hard as you can, [and] know that eventually you’ll get to the point where you want to be. It took a few days but I feel like I’m there, finally.”
Part of the process to return involves a grueling physical test known to the players as mountains. The skating drill—called suicides or Herbes (after renowned coach Herb Brooks) by some—is familiar to anyone who’s played competitive hockey and hardly ranks high on any list of favorites.
“It’s just a conditioning drill [where] you have to stop at every blue line,” said Bordeleau, who also had to go through the process. “Blue line, back. Red line, back. Far blue line, back. Goal line, back.”
A staple at hockey practice, doing mountains isn’t the difficult part. Doing them with a 54-second time limit is.
Players are always timed during the drill and, in order to be deemed fit for play, a skater returning from injury must complete four consecutive mountains with each clocking in under the benchmark.
“It’s kind of like getting tortured, I guess. It’s not fun, but it’s a good indication of where you’re at physically and a little bit mentally too,” Stuart said. “It’s not easy to push yourself that hard, to be able to do it. I’m glad it’s over with for sure, and now I can look forward to just getting ready to play some games.”
While Stuart knows when he’ll play, Bordeleau’s immediate future is less certain.
“Hopefully I’ll play in Pittsburgh,” he said. “It’s coach’s decision.”
The 6-foot-6, 225-pound bruiser has yet to play a game this campaign after undergoing back surgery during the offseason.
“It’s a long process. I got hurt, I think, on July 15, five months ago,” Bordeleau said, reflecting on his journey back into the lineup. “It’s just a lot of conditioning. I’m still behind the boys, obviously because I missed five months, but I’m working on it every day with Timmy [Army] and Casey [Bond].”
Being in shape is one thing, but being ready to play at full speed in the middle of a season where every single point matters brings with it a mixture of energy and tension.
“Obviously, I’m excited. It’s been since April [that] I’ve played a real game,” said Bordeleau. “I just hope I can help the boys to get them back on that road to the playoffs. I’m excited and anxious at the same time ‘cause I missed so many games.”
Bordeleau’s key to success in his first games back?
“Not to change anything. Just play my role, which is hit everything that moves and play physical, intense, and hard on pucks. I should be good. [I’m] not trying to do too much.”
An extended absence away from the game is a mixed bag for most players. While it might offer an outside perspective on things that are going well or that could be done better, it’s also tough to experience, knowing there is nothing to be done to make an immediate impact.
“It’s hard when you’re not playing. You can’t really do anything about it, but you definitely talk to your teammates about certain things. You still try and stay involved with some meetings,” said Stuart. “You’ve got to know what’s going on when you come back. That’s kind of the process you go through, and once you get back, you throw yourself right into it.”
Stuart will be right into it on Thursday as the Avs face the Pittsburgh Penguins, the top team in the East and a perennial powerhouse of skill and success.
“We’re playing some good teams,” Stuart said. “Our key would be to get off to a good start. We’re on the road. Kind of establish our game early, take the crowd out of it if we can, and settle into our game from there. I think that will be important for all three of those games.”
That kind of good start involves playing the Colorado game and not letting the pace be dictated by anyone else.
“It’s pressure and working down low and holding pucks down there and making their ‘D’ work. If we play in their zone for 40 seconds, or even if it’s 20 seconds, that takes energy and time away from their offensive guys playing in their ‘D’ zone,” said Mitchell. “So they might think twice about coming down on the rush when they do eventually get the puck. They might just chip it and change, and then we can come back and get an attack right all over again. I think that’s the key.”
Mitchell is itching to play after missing two separate stretches with a lingering leg injury.
“I just want to try and get back in the lineup and help the team come out with three wins on this road trip,” the 29-year-old utility forward said. “We have to start with the first one, which is obviously a very good team in Pittsburgh. So we have to go in there and just play hungry.”
The desire to contribute is equally balanced by Mitchell’s reservations about coming back too early, a lesson he’s learned once this year.
“Obviously I’m looking to play as soon as I can, but at the same time you have to be a little cautious ‘cause last time I tried to come back as soon as I could and just re-aggravated the injury,” he said. “Whether it’s Thursday or Saturday, we’ll see how it goes.”
There is no update on the status of Varlamov or Winchester, both of whom will be on the trip. Calvin Pickard is scheduled to start in net.
Colorado takes on Pittsburgh on Thursday at 5 p.m. MT.