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Avs lose Johnson, O'Brien, but get Wilson back

by Rick Sadowski
DENVER -- Just when it looked like the Colorado Avalanche were starting to get healthy, their defense corps has taken a double hit with the losses of Erik Johnson to a hand injury and Shane O'Brien to a knee injury.

Neither will play tonight when the Avalanche faces the Nashville Predators at the Pepsi Center in the opener of a home-and-home series that resumes Thursday in Music City.

The good news for the Avalanche is that defenseman Ryan Wilson will play for the first time since he suffered a concussion in a Dec. 6 game in Vancouver. The 6-foot-1, 207-pound Wilson was arguably the team's best defenseman when he was injured on a hit from behind by Maxim Lapierre that didn't result in a penalty or supplemental discipline.

"It's a great feeling," Wilson said this morning. "Coming to the rink all those days knowing that you're not playing, it gets to you. You're just waiting for this one moment to get back in the lineup. I felt good on the ice this morning and hopefully I can carry it into the game."

Wilson is a big hitter, but he's only been assessed 24 penalty minutes in 28 games. He's been a solid two-way defenseman with 1 goal, 13 assists and a plus-5 rating.

"He was playing physical and he was chipping in offensively, which is a bonus," Avalanche coach Joe Sacco said. "Things were just going well for him. I think it all stems from him being involved in the game physically. I think he's certainly established a reputation that when he's on the ice to have your head up. That's what we look for from Ryan, to make sure that he keeps the opposition on their toes and doing it with discipline and not crossing the line. He's been real good at judging that."

Wilson said he isn’t nervous about getting hit again. He suffered a facial cut and blurred vision that lasted a couple of days after his face slammed into the glass on Lapierre's hit.

"No, it happens," he said. "You play so many games and you're going to take a couple hits here and there. It's something that happened and I'm not thinking about it. I'm just going to go out there and play. I expect to get hit."

The Avalanche went 10-5 without Wilson and have won nine of the past 11 games, with both losses coming in the second game of a back-to-back situation.

"It was awesome," Wilson said. "It was great to watch the guys go out there and play so well. You want to get back in the lineup and help the team out, but when they're playing that good you feel like they might not need you at the time. It was good to get my rest and now hopefully I can help us continue."

Johnson and O'Brien were injured in Saturday's 4-0 loss in St. Louis. Johnson skated this morning and will accompany the team for Thursday's game in Nashville, but O'Brien will be sidelined for an indefinite period. Matt Hunwick, a healthy scratch the previous five games, will suit up tonight.

"It's unfortunate that we lost two guys that have been contributing, but that's why we have eight defensemen," Sacco said.

The Predators have had the Avalanche's number lately. They swept the four-game series last season by a combined score of 17-8 and have won five consecutive meetings between the teams.

Nashville is on a 10-4 roll and is seventh in the tightly-packed Western Conference with a 22-15-4 record and 48 points. Colorado is 10th with a 23-19-1 record and 47 points.

"They're a hard-working team and they skate well," Avalanche captain Milan Hejduk said. "Every year it seems like they make the playoffs. It's a tough team to play against. If we want to make the playoffs, we have to do well against them."

The Avalanche will only play three home games in January after playing 19 at the Pepsi Center in November and December.

"Maybe it's a little better than having a stretch of six or seven games in a row at home," Hejduk said. "When they're spread out, maybe you can get ready for it more because it's so unusual this month to play at home. We'll see."
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