For the Colorado Avalanche, the final three games of the season will be for all the marbles. Currently sitting in the last Wild Card spot in the Western Conference with 93 points, the Avalanche find themselves only one point ahead of their division rival, the St. Louis Blues.
Though currently in a playoff spot, there are a handful of obstacles for the Avalanche. The next three games all come against playoff teams — the Los Angeles Kings on Monday, the Anaheim Ducks on Thursday, and the season-ending home game against the Blues. Not only will each of these games be highly competitive, but the Blues have one game at hand, as well.
The Avalanche are without goalie Semyon Varlamov (lower-body injury) for the remainder of the season, while top-line defenseman Erik Johnson (fractured patella) is expected to miss six weeks, and wouldn’t return unless the Avalanche make it to at least the second round of the playoffs.
From February 16th until his injury March 30th, Varlamov has been the Avalanche’s starting netminder. Jonathan Bernier has been out with a lingering concussion until Sunday night, when he played his first full game since Feb 11th.
In Varlamov’s 19 games he started since Bernier’s injury, he’s been solid, leading the Avs to a record of 10-5-4 with a .922 save percentage. Nine of those games came against current playoff teams.
Bernier, when healthy, has had an admirable season himself, starting 31 games with 18 wins and a .913 save percentage. Moreover, Bernier has shown flashes of being the netminder the Avalanche need for a deep playoff run.
From January 2nd until February 3rd, Varlamov did not see the ice due to a lower-body injury he has seemed to have trouble fully recovering from time and time again. Bernier had an incredible .935 save percentage which led the Avalanche to a record of 9-2-1, in hi Varlamov’s absence, including a stretch of eight straight wins over this time.
With Varlamov out for the remainder of the season, the Avalanche will need Bernier to get hot and raise his level of play to make the playoffs, and hopefully, advance past the first round. Bernier can play with the league’s best, but he needs to get be into top-notch shape immediately.
However, not only are the Avalanche relying on a goalie who is has been injured for more than a month, but they will be trying to make a playoff push without Johnson, the team’s best defenseman.
Sunday’s 4-3 overtime loss to the Anaheim Ducks was the first game without Johnson on the backend, and the rest of the defense had to step up. After the game, Bernier told NHL.com, “We played really well; our PK was really good. I thought we kept most of the shots on the outside, and unfortunately the one rebound I gave all night goes right on the guy’s stick.”
Johnson was playing some of the best hockey of his career until he missed exactly one month — from February 18th until March 18th — with an upper-body injury. For the last half of March, Johnson picked up where he left off and spearheaded the Avalanche defense.
During Johnson’s previous injury, the Avalanche had a record of 7-2-4, and were able to pick up at least one point in 11 of 13 games — but eight of these games were against current non-playoff teams.
Although the Avalanche were still able to play a winning style of hockey without Johnson, he makes his team instantly better when he’s on the ice. Johnson plays in nearly every important situation and leads all skaters on the team with an average 25:26 time on ice per game — only six players in the league have a higher average.
What Johnson means to this team goes deeper than statistics; he doesn’tt score like Tyson Barrie or have the slick skating ability of rookie Samuel Girard, but what he does bring is leadership, physicality and the ability to lock down any other team’s best forwards unlike any defenseman on the Avalanche roster.
Nevertheless, despite all the injuries, the Avalanche control their destiny at this point and need a ‘next man up’ mentality to win their final three monumental games.