Heavy workload keeping Eagles’ Annunen sharp

Photo: Colorado Eagles

📝 by Patrick Williams

Colorado Eagles goaltender Justus Annunen wants work, and the American Hockey League schedule is providing plenty of that for him.

At 21, Annunen looks every bit the top prospect that the Colorado Avalanche have envisioned. Thanks to a 6-0-1-0 tear that includes five consecutive wins, the Eagles have improved to 16-11-3-2 (.578) while leaning heavily on Annunen. A team that started the season 0-4-0-1 now ranks sixth overall in the grueling Western Conference.

The Avalanche chose Annunen, a product of the storied Kärpät program in his native Finland, in the third round of the 2018 National Hockey League Draft. Before his selection, Annunen had led Finland to the gold medal at the 2018 IIHF U18 World Championship in Russia, completing the tournament with a 2.00 goals-against average and .914 save percentage across six games.

Then as an 18-year-old taking on top-tier European competition, Annunen led all Liiga netminders in 2019-20 with a 1.77 GAA and .929 save percentage while his six shutouts also placed him second overall. His season also featured a new league-record shutout streak (302:05) and a 15-5-3 regular-season mark. He also represented Finland at the 2020 IIHF World Junior Championship.

After making another 24 appearances with Kärpät in 2020-21, Annunen made his way to North America and played his first two AHL games with the Eagles last May.

Now the 6-foot-4, 205-pound Annunen is taking on American Hockey League competition and an even heavier workload. His 1,357 minutes played rank third in the AHL, and he is 11-6-4 with a 2.83 GAA and a .900 save percentage while appearing in 24 of the Eagles’ 32 games so far. He was also named the AHL’s Goaltender of the Month for November after posting a .937 save percentage in eight appearances.

“I like a lot of games,” Annunen said. “I feel like it’s easier to play when you get lots of games.”

Annunen has taken the past four starts for Colorado, all wins ― including three by shootout. His 41 saves on Saturday night enabled the Eagles to wrestle away a 4-3 shootout win to sweep a two-game set from visiting Milwaukee. This weekend, the Iowa Wild come to the Budweiser Events Center for games Friday and Saturday before the Eagles start a six-game Pacific Division road trip next week. Of the Eagles’ 36 remaining games, 24 of them will come on back-to-back days.

“I like the back-to-back games,” said Annunen, who has started both games of a back-to-back on seven occasions already this season.

Annunen’s recent run with the Eagles has followed his first sampling of NHL competition in a hectic introduction last month. After Darcy Kuemper was injured during the morning skate before a Dec. 1 road game against the Toronto Maple Leafs, the Avalanche put in an emergency call for Annunen, who was back in Colorado with the Eagles.

Annunen quickly took a flight to Toronto that afternoon, landed, and immediately went to Scotiabank Arena, where he arrived mid-game to back up Jonas Johansson. Annunen then made his NHL debut Dec. 4 with a 17-save relief effort against the Ottawa Senators that helped the Avalanche to earn an overtime point. He followed with his first NHL start against the Philadelphia Flyers before returning to the Eagles on Dec. 8.

“I think it was a great experience for me to get one-and-a-half games,” Annunen said of his NHL stint, “so I know what it [takes] to get there.”

Back in the AHL, his development has continued while working closely with Eagles goaltending coach Ryan Bach.

“It’s been great,” Annunen said. “He’s been helping me a lot to adjust [to] playing here. Every day in practice, he is always there. He just wants to be there, so it’s good for us.”

Now comes the upcoming second half of the season and more of the workload that Annunen craves. The Eagles’ February schedule has an 11-game stretch between Feb. 2-27, and they will need his endurance to continue their push to the Calder Cup Playoffs.

“It’s very nice to be back here and playing a lot,” Annunen stated. “It’s more important to play, so it’s very nice to be here. I think [the Eagles] are going in the right direction.”