Frei: Jonathan Bernier talks about answering the call in the Avalanche net

Avalanche goalie Jonathan Bernier (45) stops a shot by Dallas Stars center Martin Hanzal (10) during the third period at the American Airlines Center Saturday. Credit: Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports
Jonathan Bernier after practice Sunday.

The Avalanche couldn’t come out and say it, but these are the trying circumstances Joe Sakic especially had in mind when he went after and signed veteran goalie Jonathan Bernier to a one-year, $2.75 million contract on the first day of unrestricted free agency last summer.

Semyon Varlamov, who was shut down for the 2016-17 season in late January and then underwent twin hip surgeries in the hope of ending his long-troublesome groin muscle issues, has not held up.

In a perfect world. Bernier would be Varlamov’s conventional backup, or perhaps a 1A, getting at most 27 or so starts. That would indicate that Varlamov was mostly healthy and also effective enough to hold down the No. 1 job.

But now with Varlamov again out at least through the All-Star break, the challenge is for Bernier, 29, to not only be the No. 1 … but continue to play like one.

Varlamov came to the bench and left the Jan. 2 game against Winnipeg, and that turned out to be the third victory in what now is the Avalanche’s six-game winning streak heading into the Martin Luther King Day home game against Anaheim.

In his three starts since, Bernier has allowed a total of three goals.

The Avalanche is playing it conservatively with Varlamov, still hoping he can be on the ice before the All-Star break, but his earliest return would be Jan. 30 against Vancouver. At this point, it would be naive to stake too much faith in that timetable.

As recently as two weeks ago, Varlamov again told Rick Sadowski of NHL.com and me that he believed the groin issues were behind him following the surgeries, but he forgot to knock on the wood of the locker room stall behind him. He is signed through the 2018-19 season, with a $5.9 million annual cap hit, and the Avalanche has a lot of money, faith and credibility invested in him over the years. But at some point, if the groin issues keep returning, Colorado won’t be able to count on him moving forward.

“Obviously, you never wish for anyone to get injured,” Bernier said after practice Sunday. “At the same time, that’s just sports. If I look back at last year (with Anaheim), Gibby (John Gibson) got hurt and I got the chance to play more games. You just never know. I didn’t (sign) here because I thought Varly was going to get hurt. That’s not true. In this league now, you need two good goalies to go deep. That’s why Joe signed me here.”

Bernier has had ups and downs this season, but now is 10-7-1 with a 2.77 goals-against average and a .911 save percentage. He also got credit for the overtime win over Winnipeg after coming on for Varlamov, and hasn’t lost since the Avalanche fell 6-5 at Tampa Bay on December 16.

“I feel good, obviously,” Bernier said. “Once you win five in a row, you always feel good. But I think it’s the overall team success. We’re playing very good defensively, on the PK, and we score some big, timely goals.”

He’s also playing for a 2018-19 contract … either here or somewhere else.

“I played last year for a contract, I played (other) years for a contract, so you don’t rally worry about that,” he said. “You play your own game, you approach every day the same way and that’s the attitude you have to have.”

In three seasons with Toronto starting in 2013-14, Bernier played 55, 58 and 38 games before his 39-game season with the Ducks a year ago. He hasn’t given up on establishing himself as a long-term No. 1.

“I think that’s always the goal,” he said. “But sometimes you can’t control if there’s a spot for you like this, but at the same time, I’m just approaching every day hopefully the right way, work hard in practice and when I get a chance to play, play my game.”

He said he empathizes with Varlamov.

“I kind of went through the same thing when I was with Toronto,” Bernier said. “I just kept getting hurt and kept getting surgery after surgery. It’s never as easy spot. You feel you’re doing the right thing every day. You take care of your body and things like that and those things happen. You have to stay strong mentally. He’s going to come back and hopefully I can carry the load until he comes back.

“I feel good. To be honest, I think I feel better than when I was 20. I take care of my body better and I know what to do to be prepared the next day and things like that. You mature. You get older. It seems like it gets a little bit easier.”

Avalanche coach Jared Bednar said of the goaltending situation: “Having a tandem in net that you’re confident in, that your team’s confident in, is very important. Varly got sick, missed five games, and now he’s out with an injury, and you have to continue to be able to win hockey games. The teams we’re competing against are winning every night and we have to continue to try to do the same.”

Bernier’s backup is veteran Andrew Hammond, the throw-in from Ottawa in the Matt Duchene trade who was recalled from Belleville of the AHL. Hammond is intriguing because of how he backed up his “Hamburglar” nickname, which dates back to his collegiate career at Bowling Green, with an amazing 20-1-2 stretch run at the end of the 2014-15 regular season at Ottawa, enabling the Senators to rally for a playoff berth. He hasn’t played yet for the Avalanche in his stints on the roster this season, and it seems unlikely that he’ll get a start before Varlamov’s return to the active roster — if that goes as planned.

“‘Berns’ has waited and been patient for this opportunity,” Bednar said. “He’s making the most of it. He’s been a starter before, he’s been a backup, he understands the situation. This is his time to shine and continue to try and carry our team here, so we’re going to give him every opportunity to do that.”

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Denver-based journalist Terry Frei writes two commentaries a week about the Avalanche for Mile High Sports. He has been named a state’s sports writer of the year seven times, four times in Colorado (including for 2016) and three times in Oregon. He’s the author of seven books, including the fact-based novel “Olympic Affair” about Colorado’s Glenn Morris, the 1936 Olympic decathlon champion; and “Third Down and a War to Go,” about the 1942 football national champion Wisconsin Badgers and the players’ subsequent World War II heroism. His web site is terryfrei.com and his additional “On the Colorado Scene” commentaries are at terryfrei/oncolorado. 

E-mail: terry@terryfrei.com

Twitter: @tfrei

Terry Frei’s MHS Commentary Archive:

Nathan MacKinnon doesn’t mind not being recognized … at the mall

Glory Days … Now get Springsteen out of your head

Sakic/Bednar and Elway/Joseph: Eerie parallels

Carl Soderberg goes from albatross to asset

Magazine: Jim Montgomery is Mile High Sports’ college coach of the year

Magazine: Will Butcher is Mile High Sports’ college athlete of the year 

Varlamov playing better than the numbers might indicate 

At the Christmas break, Avalanche is last — but still a turnaround story  

Tyson Barrie isn’t pictured, but he’s in the Avalanche picture 

On this (unnamed) line, Gabe Landeskog amps up the scoring

Avalanche rushing game involves Girard and Jost

And the Nathan MacKinnon answer is… 

Noted hockey pundit Yogi Berra would call this deja vu all over again

MacKinnon and O’Reilly meet again

Catching up with Jared Bednar

Gabe Landeskog has to be smarter, and he’s the first to say so

For Avalanche, winning back fans isn’t easy, either

Horseman/defenseman Erik Johnson up to playing marathon minutes

Ring of Famer Red Miller, Part One: Coal Miner’s son

Ring of Famer Red Miller, Part Two: About those %$#@ Raiders… 

This time a year ago, the wheels fell off 

Post-trade: On Girard and Kamenev

Matt Duchene heads to Ottawa

Stockholm is a Homecoming for Landeskog

Why Can’t MacKinnon do that every night?

And this Avalanche team is?

At the Pepsi Center, you’ll think you’re in Chicago

Is Zadorov ready to be – and stay – a top-pairing “D”?

For this is to work, Bernier has to be better

This isn’t just Jared Bednar’s second season. It’s his second chance.

Sven (The Reindeer) Andrighetto speedily skating into Avalanche forefront

With Avalanche off to another 3-1 start, leadership is a “core” issue

Magazine: Colorado Eagles’ class act in Northern Colorado

Magazine: Avalanche convinced a turnaround is possible

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