On Saturday night, just before the Christmas break, Erik Johnson went after Arizona Coyotes enforcer Zac Rinaldo.
Up to this point in the season, Rinaldo hadn’t put himself in a particularly bad position. Although the forward has an almost comically-long history of suspension, he’d been exactly what he should have been - a fourth-line forward who was aggressive on the forecheck and relentless in his efforts, if not necessarily in his talent.
Then, on Saturday, he regressed.
Rinaldo delivered a massive, open-ice hit on Avalanche forward Nathan MacKinnon at 8:52 in the second period.
Up to that point, neither team had looked particularly dominant. They had finished the first period with 13 shots apiece, with Colorado taking three penalties and Arizona taking one of their own.
When Rinaldo hit MacKinnon, the Avalanche had taken four penalties already; in comparison, Arizona had taken one. Neither team had scored, with a very good Semyon Varlamov holding down the fort and the Coyotes starting to tire in their second game of a back-to-back.
Rinaldo’s hit, in any other game, would have been nothing. Maybe a penalty, maybe a small shoving match.
But it was Zac Rinaldo, so it couldn’t be that simple.
MacKinnon briefly looked dazed after the hit, so newly-acquired Samuel Girard - less than 30 games into his career for Colorado - skated past Rinaldo, delivering a small cross-check in the process.
He kept skating by, but Rinaldo reacted immediately. He grabbed Girard’s shoulder, turning and sucker-punching the defenseman in the face and driving him to the ice. Girard wasn’t facing him, his gloves were still on, and his stick was in his hand.
Chaos ensued, and Johnson was right there for it.
After the game, he explained that he’d ‘stuck up for G’.
“Nate took a little bit of a hit,” he explained.
“I didn’t really see that part.”
From there, he said, Girard went over to Rinaldo, who suckered him. That’s where Johnson said ‘he flew right in and took care of it’.
“You don’t want to see that,” he explained. “You know, G’s not going over there to try and fight him.”
That, of course, was part of the heated debate that raged around the NHL in the aftermath of the hit. Like Johnson, many believed that Girard wasn’t heading over to fight - and Rinaldo, whether intentionally or simply due to poor reaction and decision-making skills, landed a punch he had no reason to throw.
Johnson happily took a five-minute major for his part in the ensuing disaster, which racked up three game ejections and a match penalty for Rinaldo - who is now suspended until the league commissioner delivers a formal ruling.
In addition to Rinaldo, Johnson was penalized for fighting, spending the better part of the remaining period in the box. MacKinnon, who then got involved in a separate brawl, was ejected for being in the second fight, while his opponent - new Coyotes forward Josh Archibald - earned a matching misconduct for getting involved, as well.
That left the Avalanche without Johnson or MacKinnon, while they were already down the previously high-flying Tyson Barrie (who blocked a shot with his hand in the first period and broke it) and Girard (who missed the remainder of the second after the punch).
Down to three defensemen and left without their leading scorer, the Avalanche should have stuttered.
Instead, while Johnson sat patiently in the box, his team scored - then scored again, and again, and again.
4-0, all in a roughly four-minute span. And Johnson, although not a part of the play, was perfectly pleased with how everything went down.
“Any time your best players stick up for one another, it goes a long way in the locker room,” he explained post-game.
“I think we had four goals in like ten minutes, or something crazy like that.”
“Whatever it was, that was insane…”
He laughed. “I was in the box the whole time, so, you know… I wasn’t really paying attention. But after I got out, it was nice to go into the third with a pretty comfortable lead.”
We had to ask: how reassuring was it to see four goals scored without Barrie, MacKinnon, or himself on the ice?
“No, it was great,” he explained. “Secondary scoring is key.”
“Those guys [Barrie and MacKinnon] have carried a bulk of the offensive load for us - so any time you get secondary scoring it’s huge.”
The Avalanche have seen MacKinnon having what’s expected to be his biggest year yet. He’s up to 15 goals - just one shy of last year - and 40 points, which is just 23 away from his career-high. All in just 35 games, to boot.
Barrie was having a similarly elite year, although his will be temporarily cut short by his hand injury in the coming weeks. The defenseman boasts four goals and 27 points in 34 games, good for third in scoring on the team so far.
In comparison, some of the team’s bottom-six scoring forwards had stuttered, lacking the consistency needed to give the team true depth.
Of course, Johnson doesn’t think that means those players weren’t still chipping in.
“When those guys were scoring, it was always in important situations,” he explained. Saturday night was no different.
The question, at this point, is whether or not those players have the ability to hold over the scoring without Barrie in the lineup, who may be missing for a while. He plays a key part of the team’s man advantage strategy, and that means changes are coming - and the guys who normally sit out those power-play moments may get another shot.
Johnson didn’t seem worried, though, about the team’s next few weeks.
Maybe it was the thrill of that kind of disastrous game that got him pumped, but that’s the energy the Avalanche need. It’s what was hugely missing last year, and it’s what will keep them winning.
It certainly wasn’t a perfect win, but that may be how the Avalanche need to get more wins this year. That’s fine by us.