In a wide-open Western Conference, the hot team is king. Right now, several squads that were wallowing in the gutters have lifted themselves into the race, including Calgary, Edmonton and Colorado.
The Avalanche have won three straight, but it's the competition in those contests that does most of the eyebrow raising: Nashville, St. Louis and Chicago have all fallen to Colorado's sword – and those are all playoff teams. Goaltender Semyon Varlamov has been huge during the mini-streak, but it's also probably not a coincidence that defenseman Erik Johnson logged more than 26 minutes in each of those victories.
"He’s a presence defensively," said partner Francois Beauchemin. "He’s big and strong and plays well in the ‘D’ zone.”
Taken first overall by the St. Louis Blues in 2006, Johnson struggled with injuries early on and was surprisingly traded to Colorado during the 2010-11 campaign in a big-time swap that included Kevin Shattenkirk and Chris Stewart going the other way.
A lockout in 2012 and various other injuries have limited his games since, but with his 28th birthday coming up, he's healthy and making an impact. And if you think about the fact blueliners tend to take longer to develop as NHLers, we may just be seeing the Full Erik Johnson Experience now.
Colorado's brass clearly likes what they have in the 6-foot-4, 232-pounder, signing Johnson to a seven-year, $42 million contract extension in September. And while some players don't like to talk about their deals, Johnson is more than happy to explain the negotiation.
“Just to have the peace of mind and knowing that I don’t have to think about anything other than hockey," he said. "Looking at the way we started off slow, me being a pending UFA, I’m sure there would have been rumors and distractions, so having it put aside, I’m really happy.”
Born and raised in Minnesota, Johnson is now finding himself more ensconced in Denver life. He goes to concerts at the famed Red Rocks, lives in Colorado during the summer now and loves that he gets every season in his new home.
“Friends always want to come to town," Johnson said. "And I don’t even see them half the time because they go up to Vail for skiing or tubing.”
If they did stick around for an Avs game, they would see a player who has evolved into his draft stock. Johnson is one of the best possession players on a team that really suffers in that category and has found both a partner and a mentor in Beauchemin, who brings a title from his days in Anaheim.
“He’s played 30 minutes a night in the playoffs and won a Stanley Cup," Johnson said. "He’s played with Niedermayer and Pronger and has a wealth of knowledge and experience that I’ve drawn off. When you see the top lines every night it can be tough. To have a veteran like that has really helped me.”
And Johnson has really helped the Avs. Though Colorado has a cadre of talented young forwards in Nathan MacKinnon, Matt Duchene and Gabriel Landeskog, plus a legit No. 1 netminder in Varlamov, the defense corps could use some bolstering. The fact Johnson is one of the most senior Avs now is only surprising because that St. Louis trade doesn't seem ancient.
“It goes by so fast," Johnson said. "I was looking around the dressing room the other day and I think I’m the third-longest tenured; which seems very strange because it doesn’t feel like it’s been all that long.”
And if Johnson can get Colorado back to the good times, it will never feel like a long time.