When Opportunity Calls
Friday, 12.23.2011 / 12:18 PM / Features
By Mike Doyle - Managing Editor
It’s the one sentence no aspiring National Hockey League player wants to hear: 'We’re going to send you down."
On September 28, Nick Johnson heard those words at Pittsburgh Penguins camp. Those six words meant he would be going back to the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins, the Pens’ American Hockey League affiliate, where he had spent the majority of his first two seasons as a professional.
That night, he and a few other prospects facing the similar fate went out, one last time in the Steel City, as a final sendoff to their hopes of making the big club out of camp. They watched some baseball, had a few beers and had a social last night before heading to the AHL.
When Johnson got back to the hotel, he set his alarm for 8 a.m. No reason to stick around, he thought. Might as well start the five-plus hour drive as soon as possible.
When his alarm sounded in the morning, he didn’t feel like getting up. Checkout wasn’t till noon so he went back to sleep. When he rolled out of bed a few hours later, he had several missed calls and messages, including a call from Wild General Manager Chuck Fletcher.
The Minnesota Wild claimed Johnson off of waivers.
“It’s kind of funny,” said Johnson, about the morning he didn’t feel like getting up. “It’s a good thing I didn’t leave town.”
Instead of driving east to Scranton, he took a car service west to Columbus. The Wild was playing a pre-season game against the Blue Jackets that night, and Johnson met his new team there.
“I got there a little later (than the rest of the team),” recalled Johnson with a smile. “I showed up and was like, ‘Hey guys, I just got picked up like four hours ago.’”
“They gave me some pants and gloves, and said go for it.”
In two seasons in Pittsburgh’s organization, Johnson only skated in 10 NHL games, and is still considered a rookie as a member of the Wild. The Calgary, Alberta native, who turns 26 on December 24, still had to make the team out of training camp with less time to impress the Wild’s brass than younger prospects he was competing against for a spot.
“It was hectic for a while,” Johnson said of camp. “Trying to get into the lineup and not sure what they wanted.”
During camp, he was impressive enough to play in the Wild’s first three regular season games. However, he sat as a healthy scratch for the next four. It looked like the waiver-wire pickup would have a limited roll with the Wild, too; the possibility of shuffling between Minnesota and the Houston Aeros, the Wild’s American Hockey League affiliate, didn’t seem out of the question.
After sitting for a week, things changed for Johnson. With a couple Wild regulars out with injuries, he was inserted back into the lineup in Vancouver. Johnson played one of his best games as a pro, adding an assist and registering four shots on goal in the 3-2 overtime loss to the Canucks.
“When you’re not playing, you’re watching and you learn a lot,” Johnson said. “It definitely makes you better, but it’s not something you want to do.”
“That was probably the most it felt like the game was simple.”
After the loss, the Wild went on a six-game win streak, all with Johnson in the lineup. He, and the team, hasn’t looked back since.
At 6 foot 1 inch and 200 pounds, Johnson posses speed and strength, valuable assets in the NHL. The four-year Dartmouth standout has shown Ivy League smarts on the ice picking up Head Coach Mike Yeo’s system quickly. That versatility has made him an asset wherever he’s placed in the lineup.
“Johnny he’s a great skater; a big strong guy,” center Kyle Brodziak said. “He’s able to create havoc in the offensive zone. He’s able to get in first on the forecheck and hold the puck down in the zone.”
Throughout the year, due to injuries or other reasons, Johnson has skated on nearly every line. But he has found kindred sprits in Brodziak and Darroll Powe on the third line. The trio isn’t always together, but when it is, there is a palpable spike in energy shooting from the ice.
“Those guys have been leaders for us in how we want to play the game and demonstrating that you go out and do the right thing and good things will happen,” Yeo said.
“We try to play the right way,” Johnson said of combination. The right way means that you work hard in the defensive zone, things will lead to opportunities on offense. “Powesy (Powe) does it every game, same with Brodzy (Brodziak).”
“I think we’re fairly similar guys. We expect things to go well, as long as we keep working hard.”
Working hard in the offensive zone means an incessant forecheck. The longer you can pin an opponent in its defensive zone, mistakes become more common.
“I think the reason we’ve been able to play well together is because all three of us want to play a simple game and get pucks behind their D,” Brodziak sums up their game plan on the forecheck. “Grinding teams down, finding a way to get into the offensive zone and keeping the puck down there as long as we can.”
Johnson’s tenacity is easy for fans to see. An aspect of the game that might not be as apparent is his passing.
“Johnny is a great play-maker, I find that, if he gets the puck and I find a way to get open, he is going to find me,” Brodziak said.
The complementary of Johnson’s skills were exemplified recently against the Chicago Blackhawks. With the Wild trailing 2-0, they were in need of a spark.
The puck was Minnesota’s end and was cleared the length of the ice. Colton Gillies raced into Chicago’s end and threw a hit on Steve Montador. The Blackhawks defender coughed the puck up and its other defenseman, John Scott, lost track of the biscuit as it squirted free. Johnson was the second man in and ducked around the pileup and grabbed it. With Dave Bolland baring down on him, Johnson, in one motion, spun and fired a backhand pass right on the tape of a streaking Brodziak in the slot. The center pulled the puck around Ray Emery and roofed the puck into the empty net.
The three players each did there job and combined for a highlight-reel goal. It personified the type of play that the Minnesota has been working for all season.
“I got a break and hopefully I won’t let that go,” said Johnson, a prime example of what happens when preparation meets opportunity.
And Johnson is making the most of his opportunity in Minnesota.