Sometimes, we oversimplify.
If a player is rotten at both ends of the ice for much of the night but manages to score a goal — even on an eminently stoppable shot or on a crazy bounce — the verdict is that he had a productive game and he might up one of the Three Stars or the post-game television interview.
That includes defensemen.
So I’m aware of the peril of jumping on the fact that the Avs’ D-man tandem of Samuel Girard and Josh Manson each scored a goal Tuesday night in Colorado’s 3-2 overtime win over the Blues in Game 1 of the Western Conference semifinals and portraying it as extraordinarily heroic.
But it was a big deal, bordering on the, well, heroic.
On a team with the NHL’s top tandem — Cale Makar and Devon Toews — anytime one of the other two pairings can step into the spotlight, it’s liable to be part of a happy ending. In this case, the ending was also sudden, when Manson’s shot made it through a Gabriel Landeskog screen and past Blues’ goalie Jordan Binnington at 8:02 of OT.
And Manson’s reaction?
“I was kind of just looking out because there was a lot of guys coming at me with a lot of speed,” he said. “I think E.J. [Erik Johnson] was three feet off the ground when he got to me. He’s a big guy, so I was just trying to hold my ground. But it was a lot of fun. It feels good to get to do that with your team.”
That’s Manson, the 30-year-old acquired from the Ducks on March 14 who at one point as a teenager had to be talked out of abandoning hockey to focus on his beloved snowboarding.
He affably, and a bit wryly, talked about the winning goal in the context of avoiding getting bowled over by his teammates. And then he addressed how it compared to his dreams.
“The feeling or the actual goal itself?” he asked. “Because in my dreams, it’s like a one-hander or something. It was great … It’s not about the way I feel. It’s about the way the whole team feels, seeing them come at me like that. That’s the best part.”
It was his first goal in 27 NHL playoff games, and he allowed that it probably was his career highlight to date.
“First playoff goal, overtime winner, it’s got to be,” he said.
Girard’s came at 11:32 of the second period on unscreened shot, and it was the one that the otherwise brilliant Binnington — who had 51 saves — wanted back.
“I just wanted to keep the puck on net,” Girard said. “The puck went in, so I guess it felt good.”
I asked Manson about the significance of him and Girard scoring two of the three goals.
“I think that’s been that way for this team all year,” Manson said. “The defense has contributed all year. It’s part of this team’s identity, I think. Obviously, when you get D scoring, it helps you win games.”
Girard actually was the first Avs player to leap onto Manson after the game-ending goal.
Manson also had an assist on Girard’s goal and logged 20:42 of ice time.
“I thought he was fantastic tonight,” said Avalanche coach Jared Bednar said of Manson. “You watch his defending tonight, heavy, good with the puck, gaps were great, he played his butt off all night long. He eventually gets an opportunity to shoot the puck and he puts it in the back of the net. Great shot, great goal on a great shift. So I’m glad to see him rewarded.
“He’s gotten better and better as he’s been with us. If you talk to Josh, his arrival here and the differences in our structure here and the way we play and the things we stress … it’s not right or wrong, it’s just different. He’s been (at Anaheim) a long time and the same way. So there’s differences and he was thinking too much. He’s a real inquisitive guy, he likes to be coached and wants to see things and comes in all the time, spends a lot of time with (assistant coach) Nolan Pratt. He wants to be real clear on things. The structure of his game is part of what makes him so successful. As we’ve become more clear, he’s gotten more dangerous offensively and become a better defender for us.”
Manson’s partner, Girard, played 23:16 against the Blues, including an even 2:00 on the Avalanche’s three power plays.
A major issue with the pairing, both in the regular season and especially now, is to what extent Manson has to compensate for the nifty but undersized Girard and jump into the play less than the other D-men in the Avalanche’s otherwise aggressive scheme. Girard isn’t exactly a bulldozer in front of the net either, and his partner needs to be conscious of that as well.
Manson seems to have struck a balance.
“G’s great at bringing the puck out,” Manson said. “If there’s a guy on him and I can get in his way, I can buy him a little more time, he’s got the ability to make the play, right? That’s kind of what we’ve been trying to do, at least in my mind, is giving him as much time as I can going back for the puck and let him use his skill and find a way to take the puck up.”
Girard has become comfortable in the pairing.
“He’s a very good D,” Girard said of Manson. “He’s a big guy, he’s also very good defensively. It’s pretty easy to play with him. He’s always in the right place at the right moment. He talks a lot on the ice so that helps me a lot.”
Girard laughed when remembering Manson’s comments to him on the bench during the Avalanche’s 9-3 win over the Kings on April 13.
“I was on the bench and I was like, ‘Why is he telliing me that?'” Girard said.
Mic’d up for the broadcast, Manson said: “In Anaheim if you get 5 goals, 5 or 6 goals, they get Chick-fil-A. They get free Chick-fil-A for the crowd. This place, these fans in Colorado this year…they would have gotten a lot of chicken.”
As the playoffs continue, Manson also has his eyes on the other Western Conference semifinal — the Oilers vs. Flames Battle of Alberta. That’s out of family concern, not because of presumptuousness that the Avs will advance to the conference finals. His father, Dave, was a much-traveled NHL defenseman who now is an assistant to Oilers head coach Jay Woodcroft.
Terry Frei (email@example.com, @tfrei) is a Denver-based author and journalist. He has been named a state’s sportswriter of the year seven times in peer voting — four times in Colorado and three times in Oregon. His seven books include the novels “Olympic Affair” and “The Witch’s Season.” Among his five non-fiction works are “Horns, Hogs, and Nixon Coming,” “Third Down and a War to Go,” “March 1939: Before the Madness,” and “’77: Denver, the Broncos, and a Coming of Age.” He also collaborated with Adrian Dater on “Save By Roy,” was a long-time vice president of the Professional Hockey Writers Association and has covered the hockey Rockies, Avalanche and the NHL at-large. His website is www.terryfrei.com and his bio is available at www.terryfrei.com/bio.html
His Colorado Hockey Now column archive can be accessed here