It’s not really a goaltending controversy.
The longer Jonathan Bernier can hold down the Avalanche crease, on merit rather than injury-caused default, the better Colorado’s chances of still being in the hunt for a Western Conference wild-card spot by the time it seems to be making more than occasional visits to the Pepsi Center.
Even after Semyon Varlamov was pronounced healthy again — knock on the nearest wood surface — and played well in his 29-save, two-goals-allowed return to the net Saturday at Winnipeg, that’s the reality.
It is Bernier’s net to lose, and everyone gets — or should get — that. And that should include Varlamov.
That’s the way it has to be.
That became even more clear Tuesday night, when Bernier had 38 saves in the Avalanche’s 3-1 win over San Jose. The Avalanche stretched its home winning streak to nine, and the two points were absolute necessities given that this was Colorado’s only home game in a 10-game stretch. A pointless night — even with the rationalization of missing both Nathan MacKinnon and Mikko Rantanen — would have been a disastrous setback in the quest for that playoff spot.
“‘Berns’ was good, he kept us in the game and gave us a chance,” Avalanche coach Jared Bednar said.
I asked Bednar how good it was to have tough choices in goal now.
“It’s really good,” the Avalanche coach said, then added: “You can play a rested goalie, you can play a goalie that performs well against a certain team, which was the case for me tonight. I thought Varly was great in Winnipeg. We went back with Berns because of his performance last time in this building against San Jose and he did it again tonight.”
Not to quibble, but that was a reach. An understandable one, but a reach nonetheless. Yes, Bernier had 45 saves in a 5-3 win over the Sharks on January 16, but this shouldn’t be a case of needing to justify playing Bernier. He started 11 games in a row during Varlamov’s latest absence with groin muscle issues, and now had played in 14 of the past 15.
Until the picture changes, Varlamov should get the conventional occasional “backup” starts and the Avalanche shouldn’t force anything more, whether because of the Russian’s $5.9-million cap hit, long tenure with the Avalanche, past elite play when healthy … or anything else.
When the Avalanche protected Varlamov in the expansion draft, it was both because of at least indifference to the possibility of losing Calvin Pickard and an arm-around-the-shoulder support for Varlamov, because the chances of the Golden Knights claiming him always were zero. And the Avalanche ended up with an upgrade in the backup role, signing Bernier to a one-year, $2.75-million deal after the veteran played 38 games with Anaheim last season.
At some point between now and the end of the regular season, Varlamov most likely will be the No. 1 again, getting the majority of the work.
The longer that is delayed, the better off the Avalanche will be.
And, yes, the best scenario of all is that Bernier continues to play so well, he still is the go-to guy when the playoffs open — and the Avalanche are in them.
He also is savvy enough to share the credit.
“I thought we played good as a team,” he said. “We played simple, we didn’t give up two-on-ones, breakaways, and I thought we played a very solid game with our system.”
I asked him about the night off at Winnipeg.
“You want to play every game, but it’s kind of nice to watch it from the bench and see different things sometimes. When you’re in the game, you see it obviously completely different when you’re watching the game from the bench. But I thought I had three good days of practice with (goaltending coach Jussi Parkkila) and felt really good tonight … except the breathing coming back.”
He repeated his frequently stated stance about holding down the net.
“To be honest, I’m not focusing on that,” he said. “I’m really just focusing on my job and I’m just trying to give a chance to my team to win some hockey games.”
After the oasis home game, the Avalanche now has a trip to St. Louis, Carolina and Buffalo.
“I think we’re just going day by day,” Bernier said. “Obviously, we’ve had some success at home, but we have to get that success on the road if we want to be a good team in the playoffs and to make it. I think it’s going to be a tough race until the end, but I think as a group, we’re confident that if we play our game, we have a really good chance.”
After three up-and-down, injury-plagued seasons with Toronto, Bernier played 38 games with Anaheim last season.
“To be honest, I’ve had some good years,” he said. “I think it got magnified a little bit in Toronto my third year, but the first year I played really well and unfortunately, I got hurt twice in my first two years. You’re not skating the whole summer, it’s kind of tough to come to camp and feel confident. I can’t blame it on that, but I think now I’ve gained some experience and I think mentally I’m a lot stronger from all those things that happened to me in Toronto and I’m just doing my thing now. . . Definitely, I’m feeling good, but even last year, I had a really good stretch. But I think this one, to win that many in a row was really special.”
Bernier cited his work with Parkkila.
“I changed a few things in my technique and it seems that I’m quicker and my reads are there, obviously right now,” he said. “That’s something we’ve been working on all year. Obviously, I’m not the biggest goalie but I have to use those legs and read the play, and when I do that, the game seems pretty easy. I’m just always in good position.”
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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.
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