Erik Johnson's Olympic break is finally over.
The Avalanche defenseman will be back in the lineup for tonight's game against the Tampa Bay Lightning after he missed the first two games following the Olympic break because of a suspension.
"It was long. I think the biggest thing was that it was right after the break," Johnson said this morning as he was preparing for his first game in three weeks. "We were already on a pretty long break [for the Olympics] and to then add two more games to the break was a little long. That is sometimes how it goes, and I'm really happy to be back."
Johnson was assessed a slashing penalty at 12:09 of the third period in the Avs' final game before the break on Feb. 8 at the New York Islanders. It appeared as if he was trying to whack the stick of Fran Nielson but missed and hit the Islanders player's hand instead. Nielson suffered a broken hand on the play, which was a main sticking point by the league in delivering the suspension.
The suspension was unchartered territory for Johnson as it was the first of his NHL career.
"Any time you're not playing it's hard," Johnson said to media members after Saturday's off-ice practice session. "We're hockey players, and we belong on the ice."
Johnson's 6-foot-4 frame and puck moving abilities will be a welcome addition to Colorado's defense after Phoenix found ways to fire 42 shots on Semyon Varlamov in Friday's game. Johnson also leads Colorado blue liners in scoring this season with 24 points (seven goals, 17 assists).
However, with now eight healthy defensemen and Johnson being reinserted into the lineup, two players will have to come out.
Head coach Patrick Roy said after morning skate that Andre Benoit would be one of the scratches on defense, while Ryan Wilson will likely be the other. It will be the first time this season that Benoit will be a healthy scratch.
"We have eight healthy 'D's' right now. It's not an easy decision, but at the same time they are all playing really well," Roy said.
Johnson will likely return to Roy's top defensive pairing, playing alongside Jan Hejda.
SARICH STILL FOND OF TAMPA EXPERIENCE
Colorado defenseman Cory Sarich still has a lot of memories from playing with the Lightning, but he also recognizes that his experience with Tampa Bay was a long time ago.
"I definitely have great memories there, but it's pretty far removed," Sarich said after today's morning skate. "It's been 10 years since our [Stanley Cup] run, and it's been seven years since I've been there. A lot of things have changed. I think there is only one remaining player from when I was there."
After playing his first 46 games with Buffalo, Sarich was traded to Tampa Bay during the 1999-00 campaign and would go on to spend his next six season with the Lightning. He began a run of playing 453 consecutive games in 2001 and helped the Bolts win the Stanley Cup in 2004.
Sarich said some of the memories he remembers the most from that championship run came in the Eastern Conference Finals when Tampa Bay defeated Philadelphia in a physical seven-game series.
"It was such a hard fought battle," Sarich recalled. "I remember Keith Primeau running me over twice on the same shift, just burying me in the corner. Just the hard fought battles have really stuck with me. Some of the grinding it out, and what your body goes through during the whole thing."
After missing 13 games with a back injury, Sarich has played in both of Colorado's contests since the Olympic break ended. He saw 11:10 of ice time Wednesday against Los Angeles as a seventh defenseman but saw regular shifts Friday against the Coyotes, playing 19:16 and finishing with a plus-1 rating.
Tonight will be Sarich's eighth career game against the Lightning and his first this season after he missed the Avs' previous matchup with the Bolts on Jan. 25 in Tampa Bay.
MORE MORNING NOTES
- Semyon Varlamov will get the start in net for the Avalanche. He is one victory shy of becoming the fifth goaltender in franchise history to win 30 games in a single season. Patrick Roy (seven times, 1996-97 to 2002-03), David Aebischer (2003-04), Peter Budaj (2006-07) and Craig Anderson (2009-10) are the others.
- Colorado's Nathan MacKinnon is riding a 10-game point streak (5g/9a), the first NHL rookie to record points in 10 consecutive games since Chicago's Jonathan Toews from Oct. 10-31, 2007 (also 10). Only one other rookie in Avalanche history (since 1995-96) has ever recorded a double-digit point streak, Paul Stastny, who set an NHL rookie record with points in 20 straight games in 2006-07. MacKinnon has 18 points (7g/11a) in his last 13 contests and 26 points (14g/12a) in his last 23.
- MacKinnon will face two more top rookies tonight in Tampa Bay's Tyler Johnson and Ondrej Palat. All three players are contenders for the 2014 Calder Trophy as the league's rookie of the year, and all are in the top three in scoring among rookies with MacKinnon leading the race with 47 points (22 goals, 25 assists). Tyler Johnson (17 goals, 20 assists) and Ondrej Palat (17 goals, 20 assists) each have 37 points. In the first meeting of the season between Colorado and Tampa Bay, Johnson stole the show by scoring three goals for his first career hat trick.
- The Avs have scored five power-play goals in the last two games, going 5 for 9 (55.6%). Colorado has gone 7 for 15 (46.7%) with the man advantage over the last three home games.
- There are a few connections to Colorado on Tampa Bay's roster. Forward B.J. Crombeen and goalie Ben Bishop were both born in Denver, but Crombeen grew up in Newmarket, Ontario while Bishop's hometown is in St. Louis. Also, University of Denver alum Matt Carle is in his second stint with the Bolts, and former DU head coach George Gwozdecky is in his first season as an assistant coach in the NHL on Jon Cooper's staff.
- The Avalanche will hold its third annual Military Appreciation Night during tonight's game. The Avs will honor all branches of the U.S. military throughout the contest, and the players will wear special camouflage jerseys during warm-up that will be then signed and auctioned online. Proceeds from the auction will benefit Kroenke Sports Charities, which supports numerous agencies including military.
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