The Jackets are finally off the schneid after their win in New Jersey. They come right back home to Nationwide Arena on Saturday night for their second meeting of the season with the Colorado Avalanche. After a challenging start to the season, the Avalanche are hanging around in the wildcard picture. They’re still nine points shy on the outset of the bubble and have only gone 7-7-0 since the beginning of February, but they are coming off an important 3-1 win in their last game against the Penguins.
Those playoff hopes did take a sizeable hit during that game when sophomore superstar Nathan MacKinnon, last season’s rookie of the year, left injured. It has been announced that MacKinnon will be unavailable for 6-8 weeks with a fractured foot, which extends beyond the regular season. MacKinnon has experienced a bit of a slump in his second season with 14 goals and 38 points in 64 games this season. Still, he is an explosive and creative talent with the puck, and he will be sorely missed, putting more pressure on the veterans already carrying the bulk of the load in Denver.
Jarome Iginla is 37 years old but still a force to be reckoned with in his first season with the Aves, leading the team with 20 goals and his 43 points are tied for the team lead with young-gun Gabriel Landeskog. Alex Tanguay is 35 years old and in his second stint with Colorado. Fresh off his 1,000th career game, Tanguay is still a producer and has 40 points this year.
MacKinnon isn’t the only example of bad injury luck, as former first-overall selection Erik Johnson was having a career season on the blue line with 12 goals by the All-Star break. That All-Star worthy campaign was put on hold just a few days before the break when Johnson went down with a knee injury. There is still not set timetable for Johnson’s return, leaving Tyson Barrie to carry most of the offensive workload on defense.
The Avalanche have come back down to earth after winning their division last season, which some expected after last season’s finish defied some below average possession numbers. But another reason may be a slight regression from goaltender Semyon Varlamov. Varlamov was a finalist for the Vezina Trophy last season with 41 wins, but his numbers this year are all down. He has 20 wins, and his 2.65 goals-against average ranks 31st in the league.
The Blue Jackets took down the Aves at Pepsi Center on January 4th, their 11th win in 14 games stemming from a stellar month of December. In an entertaining back-and-forth affair, it was the Jackets who would strike the final blow.
David Savard had a rough start to the game turning the puck over between the circles for an Iginla goal just 30 seconds into the game. Savard would also be involved in Colorado’s other two goals, once beat off the rush and again when a puck bounced off of him and behind Curtis McElhinney. His teammates kept the game within reach with Brandon Dubinsky scoring his first two goals of the season and Ryan Johansen scoring the third. And late in the third period it was Savard earning redemption when his point blast deflected off a Colorado player and past Varlamov with just over a minute remaining for the game-winner.
The Avalanche would rather have Erik Johnson working alongside Tyson Barrie on the blue line, but having Barrie alone certainly is still a good weapon. Barrie has been in the league for four seasons now, but only played in 42 games in his first two seasons combined. Since making the full-time jump to the NHL at the beginning of last season, Barrie has been one of the game’s more underrated young blue-liners. He had 13 goals and 25 points last year in 64 games, and he’s going at about the same pace this season 10 goals and 40 points in 62 games this season. Barrie is also a plus-3 on a team with a minus-13 player. He’s a complete player who functions well in coach Patrick Roy’s aggressive philosophy.
Gabriel Landeskog made NHL history when the Avalanche named him captain as a 19 year-old, the youngest in NHL history. Now 22, Landeskog is still growing and developing, and he remains one of the team’s most important contributors. Tied for the team-lead in points, Landeskog is coming off a three-point game against Pittsburgh and has two goals and six points in the past five games. In his last ten, Landeskog has points in eight games (7-5-12), a stretch that also includes a five game goal-scoring streak.
“Youth an Experience"
The Avalanche are the ninth oldest team in the NHL, but don’t let that number fool you. Their average age is weighed by Iginla, Tanguay, and Daniel Briere on the roster. There’s still a tremendous amount of impactful youth on the team with Landeskog, Duchene, Barrie, and Ryan O’Reilly all 24 years old or younger and all with at least four years in the league. The Blue Jackets certainly have their own members of that category, with Ryan Johansen and David Savard playing major roles this season. Todd Richards has been very pleased in recent weeks with the play of Alexander Wennberg and Marko Dano, and their continued improvement will be helpful Saturday night when the team with the best kids should have the upper hand.