Bo Byram establishes himself as Avalanche’s No. 3 defenseman: “When I’m just letting my instincts take over, that’s when I’m playing my best”

The Avalanche enters the Western Conference Finals against the Edmonton Oilers not quite as healthy as it was in the first two rounds of the postseason, but similarly deep and dangerous.

Colorado’s lone injury is to defenseman Sam Girard, who broke his sternum in Game 3 against the St. Louis Blues in the conference semifinals and will miss the rest of the postseason.

But the way Bo Byram has stepped in to fill the void left behind by Girard, the Avs’ loss could be viewed as a gain.

Byram, 20, had a combined five assists in Games 4, 5 and 6 against the Blues to become the youngest player in Avalanche history to build a three-game postseason points streak. He logged a postseason-high 19:25 in Friday’s 3-2 series-clinching victory and had the primary assist on J.T. Compher’s game-tying goal midway through the third period.

Byram had two assists in Games 4 and 5 — the latter of which saw him begin logging the third-highest minutes among Avs defensemen behind the top pairing of Devon Toews and Cale Makar.

“In the playoffs, a lot of the time you’re so revved up and everything means so much that you’re not really thinking. You’re just playing,” Byram said after Sunday’s practice at Ball Arena. “I think when I’m just letting my instincts take over, that’s when I’m playing my best. I’m not thinking too much, not trying to do too much.

“So I feel like I’ve kind of found a pocket right now. And I just got to keep trying to improve with every game and learn as much as possible because there’s going to be times where I make mistakes or times where I do some good things, and I just got to make sure that I either rebound from that or just keep it going.”

Byram, the first defenseman selected in the 2019 draft (fourth overall), began the postseason on the third pairing with Erik Johnson. When Girard went out, Jack Johnson came into the lineup and was paired with Josh Manson, who had been Girard’s partner on the second pair.

But Byram and Erik Johnson, 34, have moved into that role and have excelled.

“I really have enjoyed playing with him,” Johnson said of Byram on Sunday. “I think we’ve read off each other really, really well. The chemistry is certainly there on and off the ice. We get along super well. I said it earlier this season: I think if he was healthy all year, he’d be in the rookie-of-the-year conversation.”

Of course, Byram’s injury history has been well-documented.

The rookie was shut down in January and placed on indefinite personal leave because of concussion-related problems. But he returned to the lineup nearly three months later and has suited up every game since.

While on personal leave, Byram questioned whether he would ever play hockey again. Now he’s in the conference finals and four wins from playing in the Stanley Cup Final.

“It wasn’t easy at all. It was strenuous not only on myself but my family and a lot of people close to me,” Byram said of his head trauma. “I think we all know where we want the happy ending to be so we just got to keep working towards that goal.”

When asked to compare the dark times earlier this season to now, Byram smiled and said: “A couple times throughout the playoffs so far, I’ve just thought it’s hard to believe that you’re really in the Stanley Cup playoffs, and now being in the conference final, it’s definitely hard to believe. But at the same time, I’m just trying to stay level-headed and even-keeled — just move on from the last game and prepare for the next.”

Footnote. The Avalanche will again practice Monday at Ball Arena. The Oilers are scheduled to practice in Edmonton and arrive in Denver on Monday afternoon.

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