GLENDALE, Ariz.—As with most kids growing up in Canada, John Mitchell just wanted a chance to play in the NHL. After seven seasons, he has had more than just a taste in the league and has established himself as an all-round player that can play on any line and in any situation.
Mitchell is set to play in his 400th NHL game tonight as the Colorado Avalanche looks to continue rolling and pushing for a playoff spot against the Arizona Coyotes at Gila River Arena.
“It’s a good number, obviously,” Mitchell said of the milestone. “Growing up as a kid, you watch the NHL and you hope that you can play in this league and make it. To hit that milestone, 400, is great. Hopefully, I can make it to a couple hundred more.”
The focus for Mitchell and the rest of the Avs is on the Coyotes and getting two points to help them in the standings. Colorado sits seven points out of a Western Conference wild card position after having a four-day break since its 3-2 win over Calgary last Saturday.
“You obviously think about your career a little bit, especially when you hit a number like 400. At the same time, there are more important things that are kind of on the line,” Mitchell said. “Staying in this playoff hunt and winning as many games as we can right now, that is certainly my focus.”
Selected in the fifth round (158th overall) of the 2003 NHL Entry Draft by Toronto, Mitchell played his first three seasons with the Maple Leafs before spending one season with the New York Rangers in 2011-12.
He signed with Colorado as a free agent for the 2012-13 campaign and has since become a reliable two-way player that can be plugged into any spot on the Avs roster.
The versatility of Mitchell is currently on display as he was recently moved from his normal center spot on the third line to the left wing on a top-six group with center Matt Duchene and right wing Jarome Iginla. Mitchell assisted on a goal by Iginla on one of the trio’s first shifts together against New Jersey on March 12.
Mitchell then scored the eventual game-winning tally in the Avs’ victory against the Flames.
“I’ve played wing before, last year and other years too,” Mitchell said. “I’m fairly accustomed to it and comfortable in that position. When [head coach Patrick Roy] puts me there, I’m just trying to produce and do what I can out there. So far it’s pretty good for me. Hopefully, the trend can continue.”
The 30-year-old has played both on the right and left sides in his career and said the current zone defense that the Avalanche employs makes the transition from wing to center easier.
“You’re not following guys around too much out on the ice,” Mitchell said. “You just have to cover your points, your position, block shots if your point man gets it and tries to get pucks through. It’s not too difficult of a position. Certainly a little more challenging, but I’m comfortable in any of those positions.”
Of his 144 career points (54 goals and 90 assists), 73 have come while he has been in an Avalanche sweater. He tallied 32 points (11 goals and 21 assists) last season and also inked a two-year extension with the club.
Mitchell won’t be the only Colorado player celebrating a milestone on Thursday night, as goaltender Semyon Varlamov is expected to play in his 200th game as a member of the Avalanche.
Varlamov, who joined the Avs in 2011 in a trade from Washington, has been Colorado’s rock the last few years and especially in the team’s past few outings. He enters tonight’s contest on a season-high five-game winning streak, posting a 1.00 goals-against average and .968 save percentage in that span.
“When Varly is on and he’s saving those pucks, he’s obviously giving us a fighting chance to win every single game, every single night,” Mitchell said of the Avalanche’s starting goalie this evening. “Hopefully, he continues to play great as he has all season long.”
A victory tonight for Varlamov would tie his career best of six straight wins, which he has done twice before.
HISHON CLOSE, BUT NOT RETURNING YET
Forward Joey Hishon will miss his fourth consecutive game because of an elbow injury, but he does seem to be nearing a return to the Avalanche lineup.
Hishon has been skating for over a week since hurting his elbow in a game on March 8 against Minnesota and has been a full participant in the team’s last few practices, wearing a normal, grey practice sweater.
Head coach Patrick Roy said after today’s morning skate that Hishon told him that he didn’t feel strong enough on faceoffs with the elbow. Hishon had been centering the fourth line since he made his NHL regular-season debut on March 4 against Pittsburgh.
He also hurt his neck in practice on March 6 which forced him to miss the following day’s game against Columbus, but that injury appears to be healed.
GOALIE DECISION LOOMING
With the Avalanche playing the first half of a back-to-back set tonight in Arizona, Roy has a decision to make in regards to his starting netminder for tomorrow’s game in Anaheim.
Semyon Varlamov has played the bulk of the team’s games in the second half of the season, including starting 24 of the last 25 contests and 32 of the last 34. Backup Reto Berra hasn’t started since Nov. 25 at Arizona and has only appeared in five games in a relief role since then.
Roy said he will make a decision about tomorrow’s starting netminder after this evening’s game, but that he’ll let Berra know about the possibility of playing against the Pacific Division-leading Ducks.
Berra’s last appearance was on March 10 against the Los Angeles Kings when he made 20 saves and played 43:13 in relief of starter Calvin Pickard.
Roy has previously said that he would like Berra to play again before the end of the season. If Berra doesn’t play tomorrow, it is likely that he will see some action in one of the Colorado’s two remaining back-to-back contests this year.