The plan was to start Matt Duchene slowly, on the fourth line, and limit his playing time to about 10 minutes on Monday. The Colorado Avalanche center had been out of the lineup for 30 days, and he had just resumed skating a week earlier as he continued to rehabilitate his injured left knee.
A nip-and-tuck game — and Duchene’s impressive return — meant coach Patrick Roy tossed out that scheme about as quickly as Duchene wheeled around the ice at Xcel Energy Center. The Avalanche’s leading scorer in the regular season didn’t get the triumphant result he hoped for in Game 6 against the Wild. But his presence put a spark into the Colorado offense on the power play and at even strength in a 5-2 loss, and he is excited to see what he can do in Wednesday’s Game 7 in Denver.
The speedy, nimble forward demonstrated why his teammates longed to get him back in the lineup as soon as possible. In his first game since March 29, Duchene assisted on the tying power-play goal in the second period and played 18 minutes, 52 seconds.
He had missed the final eight games of the regular season and the first five of the playoffs because of a strained medial collateral ligament in his left knee, caused when he collided with teammate Jamie McGinn in a game against San Jose.
“He was great tonight,” Roy said of Duchene. “He was flying out there. He was playing well, he was playing hard, and I had to use him. He had a great game.”
Duchene said he knew Sunday that he would be back in the lineup. He began the game alongside Max Talbot and Brad Malone but soon was elevated to the second line with left wing Ryan O’Reilly and right wing P.A. Parenteau. Duchene ended the game without a shot on goal, but he set up many fine chances for his linemates, particularly O’Reilly, and Roy said the Avalanche was “more dangerous offensively” than it had been without him.
“I’m still pretty far away [from being at full strength],” said Duchene, who had a career-high 70 points in the regular season. “But I was still able to make some plays. I’ve got to find as close to my ‘A’ game as possible, and I felt it start to come as [the game] went along. It’s going to happen.”
Duchene’s knee injury left the Avalanche without one of its most dynamic players for the start of the first round. Without him, its offense had been frequently anemic and completely punchless on the power play. Through the first five games of the playoffs, it had scored only one goal on 18 attempts — worst in the NHL — and that was an empty-netter in the final minute of Game 2.
“We need him, plain and simple,” rookie forward Nathan MacKinnon said. “We can’t replace a guy like that. It makes a difference every time he plays.”
Duchene made a major difference on the power play, injecting greater rhythm, precision and firepower into a unit that had been discombobulated throughout the series. He drew attention from the Wild whenever he had the puck and opened up opportunity for others. On the tying goal, he got the puck in the right circle and passed to O’Reilly, who delivered the puck to Nick Holden at the left edge of the crease to end an 0-for-14 streak with the man advantage.
“This injury is one of the hardest injuries to come back from,’’ said Duchene, who is wearing a brace on the knee. “I went four weeks without a game and jumped into Game 6, which is not easy on the road. It was tough mentally, and that was something I really had to battle through.’’