Stanley Cup champion Avalanche steadily returning to health
Had his coach been watching, this might have made for an anxious moment: Colorado Avalanche defenseman Cale Makar catching an edge and falling in the fastest skater contest.
Jared Bednar wasn't tuned in, though, and had no idea what happened in the skills contest over All-Star weekend. Only that Makar emerged from his crash into the boards just fine.
These days, things are definitely looking up for the Stanley Cup champions on the injury front. Defenseman Bowen Byram returns to the lineup, along with forward Valeri Nichushkin. Defenseman Josh Manson is creeping closer to a return. Same for captain Gabriel Landeskog, who's yet to play this season. Forward Darren Helm is progressing, too.
In spite of all their bumps and bruises, the Avalanche entered the All-Star break in a playoff spot. To weather the injury storm, Colorado has relied on 39 different skaters this season, a mark that's tied for the most in a single season since the team relocated to Denver in 1995.
"Anybody we can get back right now is huge," said Makar, whose team kicks off a three-game trip Tuesday night in Pittsburgh.
Byram returns after being sidelined with a lower-body injury since early November. He was an integral part of their Stanley Cup run a season ago, when he led all rookies with nine assists in the postseason. Byram was off to a fast start this season — two goals and three assists in 10 games — before his injury.
"He's looking great. He's buzzing out there," Makar said of his fellow blue liner. "Hopefully it doesn't take him too long to get back into game mode. But I think he's a guy that can turn it on pretty quickly."
Byram missed a chunk of games last season as he dealt with concussion symptoms. This time, he was able to be around the team as he worked his way back.
"I was just happy it wasn't my head," Byram said. "It was a lot easier to be out when you're still feeling good and feel like yourself. ... I'm just excited to get going again."
Count on Byram for as many minutes as necessary, too.
"I'm 100%, so no reason to ease into it," Byram said. "I'm confident with jumping back in."
Manson will join the Avalanche on the trip so he can skate with the squad. He's been out with a lower-body injury since the start of December.
"I do think it helps to get on the road, be around the guys," Bednar said.
Landeskog could be back "fairly soon," Bednar said, but didn't have a definitive timeline quite yet. The longtime Avalanche captain has been sidelined since knee surgery in October.
The Avalanche entered the All-Star break on quite a roll, winning seven of their last eight. They've amassed 57 points, which trails Dallas (66 points at the All-Star break), Winnipeg (65) and Minnesota (58) in the Central Division.
One thing the Avalanche are guarding against is another slow start out off the break. It happened over Christmas when the team had a few days off and promptly went 0-4-1 upon their return.
"It's just shifting the mentality back to game mode. No more vacation," Makar said. "We still have a long way to go. We're not where we want to be right now. But there's a lot of time left."
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