Avalanche defenseman Erik Johnson, who hasn't played since suffering a broken fibula against Dallas on Dec. 3, shed his orange no-contact jersey, went through a full practice Wednesday and then said he planned to return to the lineup Saturday against the Buffalo Sabres at the Pepsi Center.
He made the trip with the team to Nashville, where the Avalanche faces the Predators on Thursday, but won't play.
"I'm going to get a couple more skates in, and assuming it all goes well, come off the (injured reserve) and play Saturday at home," he said after practice at Family Sports Center.
After Johnson was injured, the original prognosis was six to eight weeks out of the lineup, but that was quickly pushed back and the defenseman will end up being out 12 weeks.
"It was kind of right on schedule," Johnson said. "I got a second opinion that was right in the zone where it was. I had to make sure everything was crystal-clear 100 percent, feeling good. I wish that coming back, we'd be in a little bit better playoff position so the games meant something. In this instance, I would make sure things felt perfect. Coaches were great, training staff was great, making sure I was 110 percent getting back into it.
"I wish we were in a different situation right now, but every time you put on the Avalanche jersey, you have to have a big sense of pride. Any time you step on the ice in the NHL, it means something."
Given that situation - the Avalanche could win all 24 of its remaining games and still wouldn't make the playoffs - did he consider just sitting out the rest of the season and start pointing to 2017-18?
"Never considered that," said Johnson, 28. "Let me tell you, there's no worse feeling being out of the lineup and watching your team struggle. That was probably the hardest part for me, not being able to do anything to help the guys. … I'm happy I can get back in and help the team any way I can."
After the Avalanche got off to a 9-9 start, Johnson was injured blocking a Tyler Seguin shot in the second period of the final game in an 0-4-1 homestand that started the slide that now has Colorado with the worst record in the league - and by 14 points.
"You don't assume the worst right away," Johnson said of the injury. "I just thought, ‘Get up and try and finish your shift.' I was able to get the puck out of the zone on the penalty kill, but I knew something was wrong. I had some weird sensations and when I got back to the training room, they asked me to put some weight on it and there was some clicking going on. It just didn't feel right and got the X-ray and it was pretty obvious right away it was broken. Luckily, I didn't have to have surgery or anything, and it was a pretty straightforward rehab process."
Johnson noted, "It tells me I need to have more pads around my skates, too, if I'm going to be blocking shots. I think I was blocking a lot at that time. … I'll still block them, but at the end of the day, that's what the goalies get paid for, right?"
Johnson, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2006 NHL draft, missed the entire 2008-09 season, his second in the league and with the St. Louis Blues, after suffering a torn anterior cruciate ligament in an offseason golf cart mishap. He's had other typical minor injuries during his career and missed stretches of games, and also missed the final 34 games of the 2014-15 season with a knee injury after he was selected for the NHL All-Star Game.
He said he isn't concerned about being labeled injury-prone.
"I'm sacrificing my body for the good of the team," he said. "A 100 mile-an-hour slapshot breaks my leg. I don't really think that's injury-prone, I just kind of think that's bad luck. That's just kind of how it happens. A broken bone is a broken bone and you can't really do much about that."
If Johnson indeed plays Saturday, he will have missed 36 games. He has one goal and 10 assists for the Avalanche this season.
Avalanche coach Jared Bednar was less definitive than Johnson about a Saturday return, calling it "the target date here if everything keeps going the way it's been progressing." He added, "He's been out a significant length of time, so he'll probably get eased into that a little bit."
Johnson's return would follow the Monday loss of defenseman Nikita Zadorov, who suffered a broken ankle at practice. One silver lining to Johnson's absence was that Zadorov got more minutes and, while inconsistent and still mistake-prone, drew widespread praise for his physical play, much of the time in the top pairing.
"He was making some big leaps in the second half of the season when he got some more ice time," Johnson said. "I went through a situation like that, I missed a whole season. So he'll be fine. He's only going to miss 25 games or so and will get a jumpstart on summer training. I guess I can offer some rehab tips."
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