Samuel Girard’s first night in the NHL resembled a teenager learning to drive. At first, getting the license, you’re full of confidence. You can go anywhere. You’re finally an adult. It’s freedom, and it’s amazing. But then, there’s the first fender-bender. The inevitable first mistake where you realize that you are, in fact, not invincible. You just have to hope the accident isn’t too severe. You get back on the road, but this time, you’re more aware. You look both ways, twice, making sure that you get safely from point A to point B.
Girard’s performance went much the same. During the first period, he was flying. He was everything advertised: a fast, smart, puck-moving defensemen. But in the second, he made the errors that any rookie will inevitably make. He was on the ice for two goals against. But he showed he is a quick learner. He stayed confident, but played more aware, taking fewer risks, and settled into the game, eventually aiding in his team’s comeback win.
Tuesday night, with the injury to Roman Josi, Girard made the starting lineup. What’s more, his first taste of real NHL action came on the night the Predators raised their Western Conference Championship banner. The crowd was engaged, and so was Girard.
In the first period, he showcased his skating ability and quick thinking. He joined the rush on several occasions, providing options for zone-exit and pushing play through the neutral zone. He also saw power play time alongside P.K. Subban. He is obviously very comfortable handling the puck, using his skating to create space and shake off opposition. His outlet passes were sharp, and he played at a level beyond his 19 years.
In the second period, Girard found his way onto the box score sheet. He took a minor penalty for roughing after mixing it up with the Flyer’s Travis Konecny in front of the net. While coaches may not love the penalty, it indicated that Girard was involved. Instead of waiting for the game to come to him, he took charge and protected his net and goalie.
Later in the period, came the fender-benders. Girard was on the ice for Philadelphia’s first goal of the night – a shot from the blue-line that beat Pekka Rinne. 16 seconds later, the Flyers scored again after Girard bobbled the puck in front of Rinne, losing a battle to Dale Weise. After Weise shot wide, he retrieved the puck and centered it to Nolan Patrick, who scored his first NHL goal. On both plays, Girard missed coverage, and watched play develop instead of picking up a loose man. The speed of NHL plays and players caught up to Girard, who previously looked so comfortable. Video of the goals can be found here.
In the third period, Girard found his form again. Most promising, he showed no hesitancy at all. He seemed to learn from his mistakes, but was not hindered by them. He made his way onto the scoresheet once again, this time picking up his first career point. At 12:30 of the third period, with the Predators trailing 5-3, Girard made a pass out of the defensive zone to Ryan Johansen at center ice. Johansen flipped the puck to open space, where Filip Forsberg picked it up and roofed a shot over the shoulder of Brian Elliott. Video found here. The Predators would go on to win the game 6-5 after two late goals in regulation.
Most promising was Girard’s no-fear play. It would have been easy for the 19 year old to play safe hockey – just get through his first game. Girard proved he wants to contribute, not just eat minutes. And coaches gave him plenty of chances to do so. Shortly after giving up two goals, Girard was back on the ice. All told, he saw 18:52 of ice-time, good for fourth most among Predators defensemen. This show of confidence and understanding from Peter Laviolette and staff will go a long way for a young player trying to establish himself in the NHL.
Overall, Girard played a solid game. He made mistakes, but by no means deserves total blame for the goals against. He has a flair for offensive play, and broke up several chances for the Flyers. Given the extended absence of Ryan Ellis, and the unknown nature of the injury to Josi, Girard may see more opportunity to establish his spot on the roster in the near future. Should the Predators play him for ten games or more, he would burn a year of his entry-level contract eligibility. At this point, the Predators should definitely take him to at least nine games of action. From there David Poile and company will have to decide if keeping Girard in the NHL is their best option. He may help inject some much-needed offense into the lineup until Ellis is healthy.