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Colorado Avalanche Game Day: Edging the Oilers

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The Avalanche are without Erik Johnson, but the Oilers are without a plan as they head into Thursday’s game

NHL: Edmonton Oilers at Colorado Avalanche Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

It’s Game Day!

It’s fortunate for the Avalanche that they play today AND in the evening, so hopefully all of us have recovered from the televised heart attack that was the USA-Canada women’s gold medal game last night.

The team is heading into one of the most intense stretches of the regular season, though, so hold on to your butts - USA might have won last night, but the Avalanche are in for a fight.

THE AVALANCHE

Things were just starting to look good for Colorado, with Nathan MacKinnon back from injury to give the team a reasonably healthy lineup (for what felt like the first time all year, to boot).

Then, because this is just how things go for the Avalanche this year, Erik Johnson was injured in MacKinnon’s first game back - and now they’re back to playing down a limb.

Nikita Zadorov was incredibly impressive for the Avalanche during Tyson Barrie’s injury earlier in the season, so this will be the sort of litmus test of just how long he can continue to impress. It seems likely that he’s still got more left to show the fans, but losing Johnson may arguably hurt more than Barrie as the team looks to protect Varlamov, as well - so keep an eye out there.

The Tyson Jost/Nail Yakupov line is listed as fourth, but don’t read too much into that; both the former Oilers first overall pick and Jost have been slowly gaining Bednar’s trust and some offensive confidence this year, so they’re far more than a true fourth line threat.

Add in Yakupov’s desire to show the team that gave up on him exactly what they’re missing, and that could easily be the line that gets it done.

MacKinnon’s return is exciting, but we already knew that. At this point, I’ll be more disappointed if he DOESN’T have a three-point night.

THE OILERS

I’m not really sure where to start with the Oilers this year.

When Edmonton won their FOURTH first overall selection since 2010 just three years ago, it seemed like they’d been gifted a Stanley Cup. Not just a chance to win one, but one altogether. After all, how can a team with Taylor Hall, Jordan Eberle, Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl, and cash to burn NOT blow the rest of the league out of the water?

Then, they decided that the easiest way to address their defensive issues was to deal out Taylor Hall - and got Adam Larsson, a quality top-four (but certainly not elite top-two) defenseman in a somewhat baffling one-for-one swap.

They followed that up with a massive contract for Milan Lucic, a former Boston Bruins winger who has a mean edge and used to be a great finisher on a top scoring line, but lacks playmaking vision and is only getting older. By the time they dealt Jordan Eberle - a top-three team scorer for the better part of a decade - for depth center Ryan Strome in another baffling one-for-one swap, and McDavid had lost the bulk of his offensive support for diminishing returns to go with an anchor of a deal for Lucic.

In 59 games this year, McDavid has 26 goals and 69 points, putting him on pace for a ridiculous 96-point season. And despite this, the Oilers are 23rd in Goals For on the year; needless to say, their offense is desperate outside of McDavid himself and Leon Draisaitl on the second line.

Lucic hasn’t scored a goal since December 23rd, a streak of 23 games and counting - and he doesn’t have a point since January 20th, either.

Look for Draisaitl to try sparking him, but Ryan Strome’s quest for a three-game point streak may make him the bigger threat.

STARTING GOALIES

Although the Avalanche haven’t confirmed yet, it’s projected that Semyon Varlamov will start in net for Colorado, while the Oilers will ice Cam Talbot in their own crease.

Varlamov was replaced admirably during his most recent injury stint by Jonathan Bernier, and the hope was that the two could split starts down the back of the season - both to hopefully steal a few extra games via Bernier and to give Varlamov enough rest to survive the postseason, should that be needed.

Instead, Bernier is out with a concussion - and the Avalanche have made it seemingly clear that they have no intention of playing Andrew Hammond at all, so it’s up to Varlamov to get things done alone until he’s back. Varlamov has a .912 in all situations, but too many consecutive starts with him is always a risk.

For Edmonton, Cam Talbot has finally gotten his footing this season, but it’s been an incredibly poor season for the Oilers starter on the whole; his .903 save percentage in all situations is his worst at any level since the 2010-11 season with the AHL’s Hartford Wolf Pack.

He’s been squaring up to shooters, but not the puck - especially when the opposition runs a cycle play and draws his defense more out of position than they already are. If Colorado’s top line can work some puck-handling magic, they’re a legitimate threat to ruin his recent strong streak.