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Johnson finds stride with Admirals

by Dan Marrazza / Tampa Bay Lightning
No team puts together a 15-game winning streak as the Norfolk Admirals have without contributions from throughout its lineup. But for all of the Admirals who have gotten hot over the last month, none has found his stride quite like Tyler Johnson.

Johnson, a 21-year-old rookie center out of Spokane, Washington, leads the AHL with 24 points (9g, 15a) and has a +14 rating during the Admirals’ winning streak, and was named the Reebok/AHL Player of the Week this past Monday.

“Johnson has really been learning the pro game as this season has gone along,” said Admirals head coach Jon Cooper. “He’s been playing on a line with Ondrej Palat and Richard Panik which we’ve referred to as our 'Kid Line,' and those guys play the game with such speed that it’s hard to defend against.”

Earning the honors as Reebok/AHL Player of the Week after netting eight points (4g, 4a) during Norfolk’s three most recent wins, Johnson has upped his season totals to 52 points (24g, 28a), which is third amongst AHL rookies and 14th overall in league scoring.

“Johnson has been able to score points at every level he’s ever played at," added Cooper. “But lately, he’s really gotten a lot better at playing in his own end. At this point, besides his being one of our best scorers, he’s also becoming one of our best penalty killers.”

While Johnson has been a prolific scorer at every level he’s played at - he finished second in the Western Hockey League with 115 points last season - it isn’t as if it has been an easy road into pro hockey for him.

Standing 5-foot-9 and weighing 165 pounds, Johnson is outsized by nearly every defenseman he ever lines up against. Never drafted, Johnson found his way into pro hockey by signing a three-year free-agent contract with the Lightning last March, at the end of his junior career with his hometown Spokane Chiefs.

“Bill Peters was a huge help for me as my coach in my first year with the Chiefs,” Johnson said. “Don Nachbaur was really great for me in Spokane, also. Everybody with the Chiefs taught me so much, and I definitely wouldn’t be in pro hockey without all they taught me.”

In Johnson’s four seasons with Spokane, he totaled 282 points (128g, 154a) in 266 regular-season games, playing for a Chiefs team that never finished worse than 22 games over .500.

In Johnson’s rookie season, 2007-08, he teamed with current Lightning and Admirals goalie, Dustin Tokarski, and won a Memorial Cup.

Just as Tokarski built off of his success with Spokane and won a World Juniors gold medal with Team Canada in 2009, Johnson also found success in the World Juniors by winning a gold medal with Team USA in 2010.

As someone who has spent most of his hockey career in predominantly winning environments, Johnson admits that he sees many similarities between the current Admirals squad and the championship-winning teams he’s played on in the past.

“This team is really gelling right now,” Johnson said. “In addition to playing so well, we’ve been getting all the bounces, too. There’s still a lot of season left, but the atmosphere around our team right now is really starting to remind me of the year in Spokane that we went all the way.”

Before the Admirals take aim at a Calder Cup, they could have a rendezvous with AHL history, possibly even this week.

Already owning a franchise-record 15-game winning streak, Norfolk is just three games away from tying the 2008 Syracuse Crunch for the longest winning streak in the AHL’s 76-year history. Additionally, the Admirals are just two games away from tying the 2004-05 Philadelphia Phantoms for the longest single-season win streak in AHL history, as the Crunch’s record-breaking streak carried over from the end of the 2007-08 season into the beginning of the 2008-09 season.

The next step on the Admirals’ pursuit of history will be a Wednesday-night clash in Norfolk against the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins, who are a team Norfolk has already beaten twice during its streak. If they beat the Penguins again on Wednesday, the Admirals potential date with AHL history will come at Time Warner Cable Arena in Charlotte, against the Midwest Division-leading Checkers, in a two-game series to be played next Friday and Sunday.

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