The Colorado Avalanche returned to practice today after their thrilling 6-5 loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning last night. Given the team gave up three goals during four on four situations last night, it was no surprise to see the team working extensively on the format as they seek to iron out some of the kinks that likely cost them at least one point.
The group on the ice skated as normal, including injured forward Alexander Kerfoot who has missed the last three games with an injured foot after an Erik Johnson slap shot took him out last week against the Pittsburgh Penguins. He has begun wearing the skate guards that have been commonplace with the Avalanche since the Patrick Roy coaching days.
With those same Pens in town tomorrow, head coach Jared Bednar said Kerfoot's return is a possibility. The lineup remains in flux as the organization awaits word on Johnson's hearing with the Department of Player Safety after his questionable hit on Lightning forward Vladislav Namestnikov. He received a five-minute Boarding major and a game misconduct. Namestnikov, while initially injured on the play, did not end up missing a shift as he hopped out on the ensuing power play.
A potential Johnson suspension might put a stop to the recent Avalanche trend of using 11 forwards and seven defensemen, especially if Kerfoot is healthy enough to play. The peculiar alignment has been used recently by the Avalanche as they shorten the leash on their forwards, giving their big guns more ice time, and allowing each of their defenders a chance to play every night in a rotation of roles. One such player who has seen his ice time dip recently is defenseman Patrick Nemeth, who returned from a back injury six games ago and says he's no longer feeling its effects.
"I feel pretty good," Nemeth told BSN Denver. "There's always some small things that are going to linger a little bit. We decided to, with the same injury there for a little bit, I was in and out, so we just decided to shut it down and let it heal right away. That injury is not a problem anymore."
The rotation of defensemen versus the regular partners of a six-defenseman lineup has its own set of strengths and weaknesses but Nemeth feels the more it's being used, the more comfortable the blueliners are with the rotation.
"It's tougher, for sure," Nemeth admitted when asked about finding a rhythm with irregular partners. "It is. It's one more guy you've got to rotate in but so it is a little bit of a mix back there. I think we're handling it pretty good. We'll see what we do in the next couple games."
While the rotation at even strength has brought on its own struggles, the Avalanche penalty kill has been a staple of success for Colorado in the month of December. Once mired deep at the bottom of the league, the Avalanche PK unit has risen to 16th in the NHL. While not spectacular overall, it's a strong response after a very leaky start to the season.
"When you start to settle into some pairs and the same forwards come out, you kind of know each other and you talk through how you want to play certain situations," Nemeth explained. "I think that helps a lot. I think a lot of guys have bought into how we want to play and guys are really digging in and doing the right things on the PK. It's been pretty good but next game is a tough game, tough power play against Pittsburgh so we need to step up there as well."
If the Avalanche do go back to using six defensemen, don't be surprised to see Nemeth return to seeing the majority of his time on the ice with Tyson Barrie, his most frequent partner so far this season. Their mixture is the classic stay-at-home defenseman and offensive dynamo who pushes play. After his three-assist game last night, Barrie is tied for second in the NHL in defensemen scoring with Drew Doughty (LAK) and John Carlson (WSH).
"He is good," Nemeth said behind a smile. "I want him to jump up and play. I kind of want to be the guy who goes back to pucks and makes the first pass to him so he can jump up ice. It's been pretty good."
Ultimately, the decision may be out of Colorado's hands a bit here if they decide on further punishment for Johnson. If No. 6 does not receive any suspension, expect Colorado to continue with their recent lineup experiment.