There was a time in the past month or so that Alex Tanguay thought his first season back with the Avalanche might have been finished after just 13 games.
He admitted as much Wednesday while he sat in front of his stall at the Avs practice facility in Centennial. He had just finished a final conditioning test (goal line to blue line, back to goal line, back to center line, etc.) and was in the process of catching his breath.
One of his teammates walked through the dressing room and told him he, “looked good out there.” Tanguay shot back with a soft-spoken but smiling, “I didn’t feel that good.”
He had reason to smile. He had cleared his final return-to-the-ice hurdle and was a couple days shy of skating again with the team that originally drafted him in 1998 and brought him back in the fold this summer in a trade with Calgary.
He made that return Friday night in Sunrise, Fla., coming back to the Avalanche (32-13-5) following a 36-game injury rehab. He logged 16 minutes and 47 seconds of ice time against the Panthers (20-24-7) and dished out an assist on Paul Stastny’s goal at 16:13 of the first period.
“It’s been a long process, a frustrating one,” Tanguay said after the game. “But I’m happy to be back, and hopefully I’m back for good now.”
The helper on Stastny’s score was Tanguay’s 10th point this season (three goals, seven assists) and his 520th career assist.
He was drafted 12th overall by the Avalanche in the first round of the 1998 NHL Entry Draft and will always be considered one of the franchise’s most beloved players. His two-goal performance against New Jersey in Game 7 of the 2001 Stanley Cup Final will forever be remembered in the Rocky Mountain region.
He returned to Denver in June after spending seven seasons away and was eager to once again to wear the Avalanche “A.” That’s made his assist Friday mean so much more than just a point in an illustrious career.
He scored nine points in Colorado’s first 13 games this season and was a key cog in the team’s incredible start. But he suffered a knee injury Nov. 2 against Montreal, and as he worked his way back from that injury he developed a back ailment, too.
It all brought into question whether his first season back with the Avalanche was going to be a lost one.
Avalanche coach Patrick Roy even mentioned in a pregame press conference earlier this month that Tanguay’s rehab had reached a now-or-never point.
But after skating well for a bit and then proving his condition to Roy and his assistants, Tanguay was on the Avs charter Thursday to Fort Lauderdale and was officially activated Friday morning.
“I think you know when you’re ready,” Tanguay said. “We’ve been working extremely hard, and the training staff has done a great job helping me get back to the level where I feel fit enough and healthy enough to get back on the ice. I’m looking forward to the challenge.”
Tanguay played alongside Stastny and Landeskog against Florida, moving right back into Roy’s second line.
“He’s a difference maker,” Roy said. “You notice him when he’s out there. I thought that [he] made Landy (Landeskog) and Pauly (Stastny) much better tonight. He’s capable of doing this, and I’m sure they enjoy playing with him.”
Tanguay’s return followed that of winger PA Parenteau, who was penciled back in Tuesday night against Toronto after missing 10 games with a knee injury. Parenteau assisted on the Avs’ first goal against the Leafs and was on the ice for 12:06.
The return of Tanguay and Parenteau means the addition of 34 points—35, counting Tanguay’s Friday assist.
“It’s going to be nice,” Matt Duchene said. “It’s going to add another element to our team, another look. It may throw off some things for the beginning, but we know we’re going to be better in the long run because of it. It’s so nice to have these two guys back.”
The Avalanche went ahead 3-0 in the second period Friday when Jamie McGinn sent a snap shot past Panthers goalie Tim Thomas with seven minutes remaining before the second intermission.
Ryan O’Reilly assisted on McGinn’s score for his second point of the night—he potted his team-leading 19th goal 1:34 into the game—and so did Matt Duchene, who finished with a pair of helpers.
Florida then made things interesting with two third-period scores, the second coming with an empty net and six attackers with less than two minutes remaining in regulation.
The Panthers had a couple chances to tie the game in the final seconds, but the Avalanche held on and improved to 13-1 this season with Tanguay in the lineup.
“We’re not happy about sitting back in the third,” Tanguay said. “We’ve done that a bit too much in the past few weeks. … We’re finding ways to climb up. I think this is just the tip of the iceberg for this team.
“We’re very comfortable with where [we are]. We’ve got three scoring lines that can go out and get two to three points on a daily basis. We’re very confident in our lineup, and we’re very confident in going into any building where we’re going to play.”
• The Avalanche/Nordiques improved Friday to 19-7-5 all-time against the Panthers and 15-5-4 versus Florida since moving to Denver. That mark is 19-5-4 if you include the 1996 Stanley Cup Final (a 4-0 Avalanche sweep).
• The Avs were 0-1-2 in their three previous trips to South Florida after winning eight straight road games against the Panthers.
• After playing seven consecutive home games from Dec. 29 to Jan. 10, the Avs are in a stretch that finds them on the road for 10 of 14 before the Olympic break. Friday’s win pushed Colorado’s road mark this season to 15-6-2.
• Avalanche defenseman Nate Guenin (ankle) and forward John Mitchell (illness) were Colorado’s scratches. Guenin could dress either tomorrow in Tampa Bay or Monday in Dallas. Mitchell didn’t fly with the team to Fort Lauderdale, but coach Patrick Roy said Thursday that he expected Mitchell to join the team at some point on the trip.
Defenseman Cory Sarich (back) remains on Injured Reserve.
• Goaltender Jean-Sebastien Giguere tweaked his back during Colorado’s morning skate Friday and his status is day-to-day. Roy said Thursday that Giguere was his tentative starter for Saturday’s game against Tampa Bay, but that’s now to be determined.
Goalie Sami Aittokallio has been recalled from AHL-affiliate Lake Erie and could receive his second career NHL start.
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