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Banged-up Avalanche lose D Erik Johnson indefinitely with head injury

Colorado Avalanche defenseman Erik Johnson (6) checks Columbus Blue Jackets center Vinny Prospal (22), from the Czech Republic, into the boards during the second period of an NHL hockey game on Thursday, Jan. 24, 2013, in Denver. (AP Photo/Jack Dempsey)

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Colorado Avalanche defenseman Erik Johnson (6) checks Columbus Blue Jackets center Vinny Prospal (22), from the Czech Republic, into the boards during the second period of an NHL hockey game on Thursday, Jan. 24, 2013, in Denver. (AP Photo/Jack Dempsey)

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. - From illness to injuries, the Colorado Avalanche just can't stay healthy early in this lockout-shortened season.

These days, there appears to be a revolving door into the training room.

Take Wednesday for instance: On the day Matt Hunwick returned to the ice from a torso injury, his partner on defence, Erik Johnson, was missing—out indefinitely after he suffered a head injury in a game against Phoenix earlier in the week.

That's simply the way the season has gone for the struggling Avalanche, who have dropped three straight heading into a game at Minnesota on Thursday night.

Coach Joe Sacco can't explain the rash of injuries and forward John Mitchell says he's not seen anything like it.

The Avs already are missing captain Gabriel Landeskog (head) and defenceman Ryan Wilson (ankle), along with forward Steve Downie, who's out for the season with a torn ACL.

"This is unbelievable," said Mitchell, who was at home for a 3-2 overtime loss to the Coyotes on Monday because of the flu. "Hopefully, these aren't significant injuries and we can get over them relatively quickly—get this injury bug and whatever else it is out of the way."

The loss of Johnson particularly stings since he was so dependable in front of young goaltender Semyon Varlamov. Johnson was injured on a hit against the Coyotes.

At least Johnson's replacement was simple enough to find: Sacco will plug Hunwick into his place against the Wild. Hunwick just recently returned to the ice and is quickly getting back up to speed.

"Feel good," he said after a more than hour-long practice Wednesday before the team flew to Minnesota.

As for how his team moves forward without Johnson, Sacco simply shrugged.

"Just like we've done with the previous guys," he said. "There's not much else to say. The situation is what it is."

In addition to the return of Hunwick, the Avs also will have Mitchell on the ice. He said he's fully over a case of the flu that was so bad, he needed IV fluids.

"It came on so quick," said Mitchell, who's second on the team in goals with four. "I didn't sleep at all. It was tough. I never want to miss a game. But at that point, I would've been completely useless as a hockey player."

Although Matt Duchene skipped practice on Wednesday for what the team described as a "maintenance day," Sacco said the talented forward will be in the lineup. He's been one of the team's most productive players this season, scoring three goals and dishing out seven assists.

Colorado was banking on this type of season from Duchene, especially after an injury-marred campaign last year.

"It was a situation where (Duchene) left last season with a bad taste in his mouth," said Sacco, who announced that Jean-Sebastien Giguere would start in goal against the Wild. "He didn't like the way things ended up and he vowed over the off-season to be better, to make more of a commitment. He's done that.

"He's pushing the pace. He's got to push the pace. He's got to be that type of player and he's been able to do that. We're counting on him and leaning on him big time right now."

Given all the injuries, Colorado certainly could use the offensive flair of Ryan O'Reilly, who is holding out due to a contract dispute. He led the team in points last season.

With O'Reilly's status in limbo, the Avs are attempting to tune out all the rumours, even ones focusing on him being dealt.

Easier said than done, though.

"We hope that we can sign Ryan and get him back in the lineup," Hunwick said. "He's a homegrown guy. ... I'm sure the organization would love to have him. He loves playing here. Hopefully, things will work out. I guess that's the business aspect of sports. It's not the easiest.

"You try not to think about it for the most part."

The same goes for all those ailments, too.

"You try to manage it as best as you can," Hunwick said. "You just try to do the best you can."

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