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Avs' Johnson scores game-winner in return

The SportsXchange

DENVER -- Colorado Avalanche defenseman Erik Johnson was itching to get back in the lineup after a two-game suspension left him on the sidelines after the Olympic break.

Sunday, he made up for his absence in a big way.

Johnson scored a tie-breaking goal with 3:55 left and the Avalanche scored four times in the third period to beat the Tampa Bay Lightning 6-3 on Sunday night.

Defenseman Nick Holden had two goals, goaltender Semyon Varlamov had 31 saves and center Ryan O'Reilly had a goal and an assist for Colorado. Center Paul Stastny had one of the Avalanche's two empty-net goals.

No one was happier than Johnson, who was frustrated after he had to sit for a slash on New York Islanders center Frans Neilsen three weeks ago.

He celebrated his return with the game-winner. Following the advice of coach Patrick Roy, Johnson beat 6-foot-7 goalie Ben Bishop with a low shot from an odd angle along the boards.

"Patrick told us all game to throw the puck at his feet," Johnson said. "He's obviously a big guy and he doesn't give you a lot of room. Sometimes, big guys like that, you throw it at their feet and they don't see it.

"It doesn't matter what angle it is from. It worked me."

Tampa Bay center Nate Thompson scored two goals and center Tom Pyatt also had a goal. Bishop stopped 29 shots for the Lightning, who have lost four of their last six games.

"I think we're going through a little bit of a rough patch," Thompson said. "A couple breakdowns there at the end and they end up in the back of the net, unfortunately."

The matchup of two of the worst teams in the league last season featured two squads in the thick of the playoff race this year.

Colorado, which was 29th in the NHL in 2013 and one slot behind the Lightning, has had a big turnaround season behind first-year coach Roy. Only the 2000-01 Avalanche team that won the Stanley Cup had a better 61-game start than this version.

After Sunday's win, the Avalanche are five points behind St. Louis for the third seed in the Western Conference.

Just as important, the team is evoking memories of the time when Roy helped lead Colorado to a pair of Stanley Cup titles.

"You ask me what reminds me of the Avalanche of the past, that's the type of hockey we were playing, and that's the way we're play right now," he said.

Tampa Bay is third in the Atlantic Division despite having a roster featuring seven rookies and 11 players with less than 100 games of NHL action. The Lightning have won despite the lack of experience.

Sunday, they failed to solidify their standing despite being tied late.

"This is a tough one," Lightning coach Jon Cooper said. "Tied game with under five minutes to go. I thought we were getting points from this one. We let them slip out of our hands."

Colorado prevailed with a four-goal outburst in the third. Holden tied it with a power-play goal with 14:48 left in the third, and Johnson scored the game-winner with less than four minutes left.

With Bishop off for the extra attacker, Holden and Stastny scored in the final minute to seal the win.

"I thought we had a good chance to win the game," Pyatt said. "The penalties in the third period hampered our team."

Trailing by a goal after one period, Thompson tied the game with a short-side goal at 6:40 of the second. With 2:23 left in the frame Thompson chipped in his own rebound to give the Lightning a 3-2 lead.

It was Thompson's second two-goal game of the season.

The Avalanche had taken a 2-1 lead late in the first with a pair of quick goals. After Pyatt opened the scoring 16:49 into the game, Colorado tied it 30 seconds later when defenseman Tyson Barrie beat Bishop between the pads.

Just 1:42 later, O'Reilly's wrister from between the circles gave Colorado the lead. It was his team-leading 23rd of the season.

NOTES: Colorado D Erik Johnson returned to the lineup after being suspended two games for his slash on New York Islanders C Frans Neilsen on Feb. 8. D Andre Benoit was a healthy scratch in favor of Johnson. ... Tampa Bay C Valtteri Filppula missed his fourth consecutive game with a non-displaced fracture in his right ankle. ... Colorado C Nathan MacKinnon extended his point streak to 11 with a first-period assist. It is the longest point streak by a rookie since teammate C Paul Stastny had a 20-game run in 2006-07. ... MacKinnon leads NHL rookies in scoring, with Tampa Bay LW Ondrej Palat and C Tyler Johnson ranking second and third, respectively.
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