Colorado Avalanche Celebrate the Return of Erik Johnson

DENVER, CO - MARCH 18: Erik Johnson
DENVER, CO - MARCH 18: Erik Johnson /

The Colorado Avalanche’s best defenseman, Erik Johnson, returned to the lineup in the victory against the Detroit Red Wings.

The Colorado Avalanche got their best defenseman back in the game against the Detroit Red Wings yesterday afternoon. Erik Johnson was a surprise last-minute addition to the matinee game.

The news came just about an hour before puck drop. Prior to that, the official word from coach Jared Bednar was that he would “know more” about the timeline of Johnson’s return on Sunday. Apparently that timeline was “now.” Coach Jared Bednar stated in his postgame presser that he’d hoped to get some practices with Johnson in, but “We haven’t had many team practices.”

Erik practiced with small groups of players and with the trainers when the Avs were on the road. Bednar stated that Johnson was going to go back in the lineup when Johnson felt confident in his ability. That confidence came Sunday.

Well, Johnson did admit that he was nervous returning to action yesterday. However, he added that he’s nervous before every game. He went on:

"“I think if you aren’t nervous, you shouldn’t be playing. I had butterflies like I do every game, but getting those first couple of hits out of the way early definitely helped.”"

Well, his first hit came just 13 seconds in. He smashed Detroit winger Darren Helm into the boards. The question, of course, was how his shoulder would hold up — he was out 13 games with a separated shoulder, and that can be tough for a big hitter.

Bednar appreciated what he saw of Johnson’s physicality:

"“You could see him first shift of the game, lays into a guy at the offensive zone blue line and the guy runs him back by our bench. And you had a pretty good idea that he was back, and it wasn’t going to be a problem for him coming out of that.”"

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Erik Johnson got injured in a freak accident. He went to check Edmonton winger Anton Slepyshev, and his glove somehow seemed to get caught on the Oilers’ jersey. The contact seemed minimal, but it led to Johnson collapsing on the ice in pain and needing help getting back up. (Remember, this is a player who finished a shift on a broken leg last year and left the ice of his own volition.) Physics must have just worked against him to separate his shoulder on the hit.

Except for their Canadian road trip right after the injury — Colorado rallied against Vancouver but collapsed against Edmonton and Calgary — the Avalanche accounted themselves well even without their best defenseman. The Avs went 7-2-4 in his absence — those two regulation losses came in the Canadian roadie.

Johnson appreciates how well the team did without him:

"“It would be a different scenario if I came back right now, and they hadn’t [played] the way they had as far as getting points and collecting wins. We are sitting in a playoff spot right now, so if we were five or six out it would be a little different. It would be harder, it would be weighing on me missing those games, but the guys played well. Managed to get some games to overtime and [Semyon Varlamov] played great and [Nathan MacKinnon] played great and just a good team effort all around. I am happy to get back and help anyway I can.”"

Make no mistake, Erik Johnson was sorely missed. Naturally, the most obvious place is on the ice. However, Johnson doesn’t wear the A on his sweater as decoration — he has long been a leader of this team. He’s the guy who will chew out players or make the tough declarations when the team is playing poorly. I think as we saw the Colorado Avalanche play poorly for partial or whole periods, that’s where we really felt the loss of Johnson.

There’s also a certain dry wit about the man that I, for one, sorely missed. For example, Patrik Nemeth apparently suffered a cracked tooth in the game against the Wings:

What was EJ’s response?

"“He chipped it in half. He looks like Lloyd Christmas so he might want to fix that pretty quick.”"

Well, not everyone can have an epic hockey smile like EJ:

He also made fun of the youth of some of his teammates in relation to the Avalanche-Wings rivalry of yesteryear:

"“I don’t know how many of the guys were even born when the rivalry was really going around. To be honest, a lot of the guys were probably in diapers.”"

That’s our EJ.

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In any case, Erik Johnson returns at a critical moment in the season. The Colorado Avalanche are in a tight playoff race. They currently occupy the first wild card berth with 86 points. They’re fighting the Dallas Stars, LA Kings, Anaheim Ducks, and (hated) Minnesota Wild for positioning. It’s also too early to completely rule out the St. Louis Blues or Calgary Flames.

The Avalanche have 10 games left. They’ve got games, like the home game against Chicago, in which they should pick up points. They’ve got home and away games, such as against the Vegas Golden Knights, in which it’s going to be tough to gain any points. And they’ve got games against the Kings and Ducks, who they’re fighting for a playoff spot.

It’s really good to have our best defenseman back.