Colorado Avalanche Get Good Return Game from Erik Johnson

Nov 21, 2016; Columbus, OH, USA; Colorado Avalanche defenseman Erik Johnson (6) against the Columbus Blue Jackets at Nationwide Arena. The Avalanche won 3-2. Mandatory Credit: Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports
Nov 21, 2016; Columbus, OH, USA; Colorado Avalanche defenseman Erik Johnson (6) against the Columbus Blue Jackets at Nationwide Arena. The Avalanche won 3-2. Mandatory Credit: Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports /

The Colorado Avalanche got their best defenseman back when Erik Johnson returned to play against the Buffalo Sabres.

Colorado Avalanche defenseman Erik Johnson returned to the ice last night in the Pepsi Center against the Buffalo Sabres. It was his first game back since December 3. And it was a good game.

Johnson got 17:35 minutes of playing time, which isn’t a lot for a defenseman. In fact, only Patrick Wiercioch logged fewer minutes. However, that was to be expected since Erik had been out for 11 weeks and 36 games recovering from a broken leg. Indeed, EJ himself stated he had expected to get between 16 and 18 minutes of playing time.

What’s noteworthy is those 17 minutes were important ones. He logged time against the top lines — which included 2015’s second-overall pick Jack Eichel. It also included 2015’s Avalanche trade, Ryan O’Reilly.

Johnson also played on both the power play and the penalty kill. He’s on the first squad for both those special teams. By the end of the night, when the Colorado Avalanche were trying to hold onto a lead, Erik had returned to the first squad for both. In all, he played 1:34 on the power play and 2:32 on the penalty kill.

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Oh, that’s right, I forgot to point out — the Avs won last night 5-3. They took a quick three-goal lead but, you know this year being what it is, they started sliding.

That’s when Erik Johnson showed what the team had been missing while he was recovering. He was eating up the ice with his long stride. He was physical, smashing players against the glass and making a big ruckus while he did it. He’s so strong with the puck and on his skates that when he got the puck on his stick he drove it up the ice.

That’s a big part of what the Avs have been lacking. Typically Colorado players have been attempting to make that good “first pass” out of the defensive zone and quite often turning it over to the opponent. Johnson usually prefers to motor the puck out. And when he does pass, it’s tape-to-tape. Those are aspects of his game that are sometimes overlooked, but they mean a lot to the team.

Erik is also really good at blocking shots (when they’re not breaking his fibula like Tyler Seguin’s did). Sometimes it seems like the Avs d-men go down at the wrong time, the wrong place or in the wrong position. Johnson blocked two shots, including one that was a sliding across the ice save that prevented a dangerous Buffalo scoring chance.

Though Johnson was a -1 — remember, he plays the toughest minutes — he even earned an assist on Mikhail Grigorenko’s first-period tally. Johnson moved the puck up the ice then turned to leave the play. According to EJ himself the puck just “hit my shin,” but he got that puck in position for Grigorenko to eventually score:

Johnson is the one who got the puck to Matt Nieto, who got the primary assist on the play for obvious reasons.

Erik Johnson is also feeling pretty good. He said of his play:

"“I figured I’d be pretty rusty. The wind felt good. The legs felt good. Hands will get a little bit better as we go… It’s almost like coming off of a summer break and into the season. I missed three months. That’s a long time. It will get better, for sure, but definite rust to work off.”"

Johnson really wanted to return to play. He’s been working since the injury with the Avalanche training staff, and it’s apparently not all that much fun. Erik added:

"“Sitting out is the worst thing. It’s no fun. Everyone wants to be playing with their teammates.”"

We all know the Colorado Avalanche have a terrible record — 17-40-3. They have no chance of making the playoffs. The last few games, it looked like they might have little chance of getting 20 wins. Now, with the return of Erik Johnson, that small goal at least looks more likely.

MORE FROM MILE HIGH STICKING: Avs to Get Boost in EJ’s Return

Side note, Saturday night’s victory marks goalie Jeremy Smith’s first NHL win. He was a last-minute nod to get the start, and he was solid — much more solid than Buffalo starting goalie Robin Lehner. Smith made 34 saves, which was good for a .919 save percentage.

By Nadia Archuleta for Mile High Sticking