Rockford IceHogs defenseman Stephen Johns couldn't have predicted the course his first full professional season would take. After an impressive training camp and decent start to the season, the 2010 second-round pick experienced a career-first – but not the kind one normally celebrates: He missed a game due to injury.
"Never had a concussion, never missed a game in hockey due to an injury, so I think that was probably the hardest point of my career," Johns said. He was shelved for seven weeks, and at a certain point, the battle became as much mental as it was physical; the ordeal offered him new perspective on his livelihood.
"It makes you really appreciate being healthy and having what you do have," Johns added. "But you know you're going to have your highs and lows and injuries, and you come back bigger and stronger and just learn from it."
After weathering another injury in late January, Johns finally had the chance to restart his rookie season, and he made the most of it, compiling 21 points (4G, 17A) in 51 regular-season games. One catalyst for his rapid progression in the second half of the season was the trading of three veteran blueliners – Adam Clendening, Klas Dahlbeck and T.J. Brennan – in moves that created more ice time for Johns and others.
"I understand I'm a rookie, and I also understand that I have a big role on this team," he said. "I kind of grabbed by the bull by the horns and tried to take advantage of the ice time that was available, whether it was on the power play, penalty kill or 5-on-5."
Blackhawks Director of Hockey Administration/GM of Minor League Affiliations Mark Bernard praised Johns and fellow rookie Ville Pokka, who embraced their new roles as blue-line leaders despite their lack of AHL experience.
"It doesn’t mean that they’re talking any more in the locker room," Bernard said. "They’re just letting their play speak for them. They’re playing extremely well, playing a lot of key minutes, and they come ready to play every night and every day in practice."
For Johns, increased ice time has led to increased confidence, especially with the puck on his stick.
"At the beginning of the year, I was kind of timid when making some plays," he explained. "I didn't want to make too many mistakes, but now I feel pretty comfortable and I think I have the confidence and the abilities to make those plays. Being out there and not feeling shy, or restricted at all, I feel like I can go out and play the way I want to play, and I think that's what every good player needs in their arsenal."
It's all coming together at the right time for Johns, who is playing alongside second-year Viktor Svedberg on the top defensive pairing for the IceHogs. Rockford cruised past the defending AHL champion Texas Stars in the first round, winning 4-2 and 4-1 in the first two tilts before returning home with the opportunity to advance (the first round of the Calder Cup Playoffs is best-of-five).
With the game tied 2-2 at the end of regulation, Johns emerged as an unexpected – though not altogether unlikely – hero in overtime. The confidence he speaks of is evident on the replay: With the puck on his stick, Johns drives down the right, evades a defender with a move to the outside, then circles down behind the net and tucks the puck in on a wraparound.
A week removed from the euphoric moment, Johns can still recall the excitement on the ice.
"You grow up playing hockey and dream of scoring a game-clinching goal in a series-clinching game," he said. "It was an unbelievable feeling to be able to advance with this team, win for these guys."
The second round hasn't gone quite as smoothly for the IceHogs, who dropped their first two games against the Grand Rapids Griffins, both on the road. But Rockford's home games have been something special all year, and Johns credits the fans for being an energizing force for the team.
"I was here for the last eight games [the previous season] when we made a playoff push, and you could see how excited they were," he said. "This whole year they've been great; we've had a lot of sellouts and really good crowds in the middle of the week, and you don't expect that in the AHL. Our fans have been awesome and supportive. It affects us, too. We play really well at home, and a lot of it is because of our fans. We like playing in front of them, and luckily we have three in a row here at home."
Heading into Game 3 on Wednesday, Johns shares the team lead with five points (2G, 3A) in the playoffs. He's begun to build a reputation as a big-game performer, a fact that surely has the attention of the Blackhawks braintrust. With salary cap considerations looming in the offseason, the IceHogs' playoff run also serves as an early audition for several NHL spots in the fall.
"It's always in the back of your head; any player would be lying if they said it wasn't," Johns admits. "Right now I'm focused on trying to win [Game 3] and get this series back in our control. If it's something that happens in the fall, so be it. It would be a great opportunity, but I've got to focus here for the next few weeks, then focus on my summer training and have a clear head going into training camp."