Colorado Avalanche: Most Important Stretch of the Season


The Colorado Avalanche play their next eight games against Western Conference foes, making this three-week stretch the most important for their playoff standings.

The Colorado Avalanche control their own destiny. Thanks to the NHL scheduling process — which did seem a little wonky at first — the Avalanche play their next eight games against the Western Conference just as the race to make the playoffs heats up.

This is a very important stretch of hockey. Five of those eight games are within the Avalanche’s own Central Division. Every single team Colorado faces is jockeying for a playoff position, in some cases with the Colorado Avalanche itself.

As defenseman Erik Johnson pointed out during a post-practice presser (more on him in a minute):

"“Every night’s a tough game — there are no easy ones. It’s just got to be like a playoff mentality the rest of the way.”"

Johnson also remarked that “if we do what we think we can do” Colorado is in a pretty good position.

Let’s have a quick look at what Colorado can do over the next eight games.

Outskate the Opponent

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The Colorado Avalanche are built for speed. They have some of the fastest forwards in the NHL in Matt Duchene and Nathan MacKinnon. Defensemen Tyson Barrie and Erik Johnson are also fast skaters.

The team is also known for scoring on the rush. Not only does some of their most exciting hockey come when they gain possession of the puck and rush the net, it’s also some of their most effective.

Teams like Dallas (two upcoming meetings) and Chicago (one upcoming meeting) like to skate, too, which makes these games especially exciting. However, it’s up to Colorado to open up the ice against teams like the LA Kings (one upcoming meeting) and Winnipeg Jets (one upcoming meeting.)

Bruise the Opponent

The other hallmark of Colorado Avalanche hockey is that they’ve gotten bigger. Only one regular forward, Matt Duchene (5-foot-11, 200 pounds), and one regular defenseman, Tyson Barrie (5-foot-10, 190 pounds), are under 6-foot. And, you know, they’re Matt Duchene and Tyson Barrie (see above about skating).

Moreover, head coach Patrick Roy has made no bones about the physicality he wants to see in his players. He praises skill players such as captain Gabriel Landeskog and alternate captain Jarome Iginla for being power forwards. He also rewards grinders such as Andreas Martinsen for finishing their checks.

In fact, coach Roy likes to have a bruiser — or power forward — on each line. He likes for these players to open up the ice for the skaters.

Johnson and his defensive partner, Francois Beauchemin, are both physical players. And then there’s Big Z — aka, Nikita Zadorov, or Wreck-It-Nikita — who loves hitting.

This physical game can help throw off a puck-possession team like LA and hopefully minimize a shooting team like the San Jose Sharks. I think we’d all like to see that hard-hitting mentality put to the St. Louis Blues and Chicago Blackhawks as well.


Deke and Dangle the Opponent

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Yes, I am well aware that good things happen when you crash the net or otherwise make yourself a nuisance around the net — this is a central tenet of head coach Patrick Roy’s teaching.

However, the Colorado Avalanche are also a highly skilled team. There are players who can make some of the best defenders in the world look foolish with their stick play. Besides the obvious Duchene and MacKinnon, there’s veteran Alex Tanguay and his soft, soft hands. Johnson and Barrie are no slouches in this area either.

This aspect makes games against Dallas and Chicago exciting. However, the Colorado Avalanche can also use it to their advantage against less-skilled teams such as the Winnipeg Jets and Vancouver Canucks.

Shut Down the Opponent

There are a limited number of goal tending positions in the NHL, so any NHL goalie should be happy he has a job. However, Colorado Avalanche goalies might have a little cause to grumble. Avalanche hockey is built around the goalie being the best player on the ice night in and night out.

No joke, coach Roy has said exactly that on more than one occasion.

Luckily, coach Roy — one of the best goalies ever — and his own goal tending coach have worked hard to build Colorado’s core of goalies. I give Semyon Varlamov a rough time, but the truth is he steals games when he’s on his game. He shut down a streaking Patrick Kane and the Blackhawks, and he stole Wednesday’s game against the Buffalo Sabres.

Right now his backup is Calvin Pickard, who plays with the pride of a young Patrick Roy. Pickard is a wizard in net, and he’s handled the big guns before.

Even if Reto Berra comes back, after some time of working with Francois Allaire, his goal tending has become very dependable. Colorado can count on him to make the key saves in games.

MORE FROM MILE HIGH STICKING: Landeskog and the Captaincy

Update on Erik Johnson

Finally! Some good news on the Erik Johnson front! Colorado’s cornerstone defenseman says he’s been skating for the last eight or nine days. He “feels good,” and he states unequivocably that he’ll be back either against the Blues tonight or the Stars tomorrow night.

Now, coach Roy was a little more cautious — he wants to wait and see what the trainers and doctors say. However, he admits that Johnson is “very close.”

Johnson has been out since the January 4 game against the LA Kings. Sometime during the second period he says he “stepped funny” and tweaked something in his lower body. Denver Post writer Mike Chambers remarked that he overheard Johnson say it was his left knee, but this has never been confirmed.

In any case, Johnson says the new injury is completely unrelated to the knee surgery he had last season because it’s on the other side. He had an MRI done because the initial fear was that it would be serious, but luckily it didn’t turn out that way.

Next: Architects of the Avalanche

Colorado has been 6-3 in Johnson’s absence, but that record doesn’t show nearly enough how much he’s been missed. He is essential for this stretch coming out because, as he pointed out, it’s akin to playoff hockey.

The youngsters and grinders who have stepped up in his absence aren’t going to be adequate in the playoff-style conditions coming up. So, it’s excellent news indeed that, as the Colorado Avalanche face the most important stretch of the season, they’ll have their best defenseman back on the blueline.