Erik Johnson flashing his toothless grin is a good sign for the Colorado Avalanche.
The veteran defenseman showed that memorable smile when he scored the eventual game-winner, breaking a 1-1 tie in Colorado's 4-1 win against the Minnesota Wild at Ball Arena on Saturday.
Having been in the National Hockey League since 2007, Johnson is cherishing the exciting moments, possibly more so than he has in years past.
"It's fun, especially with the fans--it just gives that extra boost and it's just it feels like you're in a frenzy out there. It's so much fun," he said postgame. "I was just telling the guys, you know, when we're in a tight game, up a goal, it's just so much fun to be out there and just feed off the crowd and feel that emotion in the building. To be a part of a big game just feels really, really good.
"It's just so much fun to be out there. The enthusiasm of the crowd and from our guys--it's just so good to be back and to be a part of it and be in meaningful games like that. It's been a long time, so you just appreciate it and cherish it and just have fun. Every day, that's what I try to do."
Video: MIN@COL: Johnson pots goal off bench
His goal was his first of the season and first since March 6, 2020, at the Vancouver Canucks. Johnson was out for most of last season, missing the beginning of the year in COVID protocol before suffering a head injury in his fourth game of the year. He had begun practicing with the team towards the end of its playoff run but ultimately wasn't able to get back into game action.
"It's been a while obviously, with the COVID year and then not playing last year, so just felt good to get on the board again and at home in front of fans," he said. "Just felt good. I mean, it's tough to describe the adrenaline and the feeling when you know score a goal like that at home. If you could bottle it up and save it for a bad day, you'd want to do that because it feels good."
Johnson's game-winner was his 12th in an Avalanche sweater, moving him past Sandis Ozolinsh (11) and giving him sole possession of second place in franchise history in game-winning goals by a defenseman.
Video: Erik Johnson after scoring his first of the year
His excitement when the puck hit twine was palpable not only to the fans cheering in the stands in Ball Arena, but also to his teammates.
"I think you just see the emotion on his face. In years past when he scores, he is pretty calm, but everyone knows how hard EJ has worked to get back to where he is," Nathan MacKinnon said. "Last summer, we didn't know, and he didn't know if he'd even play hockey again. You can see the emotion on his face when he scored which is really cool to see. He is doing everything he can to be healthy and I mean everything.
"This guy is taking it very seriously and we are so lucky to have him back. Defensemen like that don't grow on trees. I think especially in the playoffs last year you could see we were missing that--missing a big defenseman, PK, great player--so we're lucky to have him."
Johnson's tally was his 61st as a member of the Avalanche, one goal shy of tying Rob Blake (62) for fourth place in franchise history for goals by a blueliner.
Video: Landeskog and MacKinnon after win versus Wild
In addition to what he can contribute on the offensive side of the puck and the intangibles he brings to the squad in his leadership on and off the ice, his strengths on the penalty kill were also on display on Saturday.
The Avs found themselves down a skater at 14:16 of the second period and Johnson was on the ice for the entirety of the penalty kill, sacrificing his body to block two shots in the two-minute span.
"Listen, he has done that for years for us. Puts his body on the line and he is not afraid to get into shooting lanes," Gabriel Landeskog said of Johnson. "For him to get back up and continue that shift, made some big plays and broke up a couple of passes. Depending on where it hits you, it can really sting and really hurt and luckily, hopefully he is OK. Just like Nate said, he has worked extremely hard to get back in the lineup and to get back healthy and its great seeing him out there. Obviously, a big play like that on the PK but also to see him get rewarded, score a goal, it was great."
Johnson added an assist on Landeskog's empty-net tally to seal the win. When the final buzzer sounded, his smirk was once again beaming on the Ball Arena ice.
Gabriel Landeskog factored on all four of Colorado's goals (two goals, two assists) for his third multi-point game of the season and fifth career game with four or more points.
His two assists give him 298 for his career, tying him with Paul Stastny for 10th place in franchise history and sixth most in Avalanche history. Landeskog has eight points (four goals, four assists) in six games this season, tied for second on the team in points and tied for first in goals.
Video: MIN@COL: Landeskog rushes to net and scores
MORE AVALANCHE NOTES
The Avalanche has scored a power-play goal in consecutive contests and in three of its last four outings.
It was the first of four meetings between the Avalanche and Wild and the first of two at Ball Arena this year. The Avs will host Minnesota again on Jan. 17 before making their first trip to St. Paul on March 27.
Erik Johnson's plus-six rating this season is tops on the team.
J.T. Compher finished with two assists for his second consecutive multi-point outing and fourth of the season. His eight points (four goals, four assists) are tied with Landeskog for second on the team, while he shares the team lead in goals.
Nathan MacKinnon extended his point streak to six games, having tallied a point in each game he has appeared in so far this season. He has collected a team-best nine points and eight assists over that stretch.
Nazem Kadri has scored goals in consecutive games for the first time this season.