While most are getting an early start on their New Year’s Eve celebration, the Colorado Avalanche and New York Islanders will be battling at Pepsi Center.
The Islanders (20-14-4) head into the matchup clinging to the second wild card in the Eastern Conference and coming off a 4-2 loss at Winnipeg on Friday night. They are dealing with injuries and have had to make a few call-ups to bolster the ailing blue line.
Johnny Boychuk is out with a lower-body injury and is considered week to week. Fellow defenseman Devon Toews is also out.
Boychuk’s injury prompted a quick recall of Sebastian Aho, who joined the team on the flight to Winnipeg on Thursday but didn’t play against the Jets. Drafted last June, Aho is waiting for his chance, and coach Doug Weight isn’t opposed to playing the youngster.
"He’s really visible out there, moves the puck really well, skates well, and he’s a really creative kid. He just battles," Weight told Newsday. "He’s defended really well in those areas, and as a young D on the smaller side, that’s something you’ve got to be aware of."
Sunday’s game between the teams will cap the two-game series, and the sight of the Islanders will remind the Avalanche and their fans how things changed drastically this season.
When the Avalanche (18-16-3) played at New York on Nov. 5, the 6-4 loss was overshadowed by the sudden trade of long-time center Matt Duchene.
Duchene, who had made it clear he wanted to be traded, got his wish granted during the game in Brooklyn.
The deal was finalized while the game was going on and Duchene left the ice and headed to join his Ottawa Senators teammates.
Colorado is 10-10-3 since trading Duchene, and his departure has opened opportunities for other young players. One is J.T. Compher, who scored the overtime goal against Toronto on Friday night to let the Avalanche escape with a win after blowing a third-period lead.
Compher got the goal despite having suffered an upper-body injury earlier in the game. He was evaluated Saturday, but coach Jared Bednar said he wouldn’t have an update on his condition until Sunday.
One player who has excelled in Duchene’s absence is center Nathan MacKinnon, who has 12 goals and 17 assists in the 23 games since the trade. He had three points in the win over the Maple Leafs and nearly got the game-winner in overtime, but one of his shots rang off the post.
MacKinnon has come on strong after a slow start to the season, and the Avalanche are benefiting. He also believes he deserves to be considered one of the young stars of the NHL with his recent play.
"As a top young guy I feel like I am," he said after Friday’s win. "I’m kind of living in my own bubble and focused on what I have to do and what the team has to do. I’ll let everyone else decide those things."
His game will be on display again Sunday, and it might just start an early celebration to bring in 2018.
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