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Johnson using playoffs to showcase talent

by Brian Compton

Utah Grizzlies rookie forward Keith Johnson has 13 oints so far in 11 ECHL playoff games.
Less than five months ago, we used this space to discuss the phenomenal run of Utah Grizzlies forward Trevor Smith during his first professional season.

Shortly thereafter, the undrafted rookie was promoted to the Bridgeport Sound Tigers in the American Hockey League. He never returned to the ECHL, as he racked up 37 points (20 goals, 17 assists) in just 53 games in the AHL.

Grizzlies forward – and fellow rookie – Keith Johnson took notice of that. It’s why the University of Maine product continues to work on his game at the Double-A level, where he’s been one of the top performers in the Kelly Cup Playoffs.

Johnson, 23, has tallied 13 points in 11 contests this postseason, helping the Grizzlies on their surprising run to the National Conference Finals. His hope is that scouts have taken notice and he, like Smith, gets a shot in the AHL.

“Well obviously, it’s big,” Johnson told this week. “Scouts like to see playoff points and how you can perform in the games that really matter. Obviously me being a rookie and having a good run so far in the playoffs will definitely help me in the future. Hopefully I can keep it going this next round.”

The next round is slated to begin Monday night in Las Vegas, where the Grizzlies will meet the top-seeded Wranglers in Game 1 of a best-of-7 series. Las Vegas finished the regular season with 47 wins and 106 points and was expected to be here. Utah – hit hard by the transaction wire all season long – was only two games above the .500 mark (32-30-10).

It’s amazing what you can accomplish when you have your team intact, isn’t it?

 “We knew what we had,” Utah coach Jason Christie said. “We were confident in guys coming back and there was probably a lot of people who were writing us off. When you get through the injuries and you get through the call-ups … hockey is about the ups and downs. You have to be prepared for what you had planned. Nobody wants to go through what we went through and nobody wants to make excuses. But deep down, we knew what we had and we knew we had a team moving forward.”

Johnson was one of the few constants for the Grizzlies during the regular season. While he did receive a brief promotion to the AHL – he appeared in five games for Bridgeport – Johnson spent the majority of the season in Salt Lake City, where he finished third on the team in scoring with 53 points (27 goals, 26 assists). He never had more than 24 points in a season during his collegiate career at Maine.

“I have to use my speed to my advantage – that’s the key to my success,” Johnson said. “I keep my legs moving and I can get around the defensemen. I can improve in all areas of the game. You can always get better, and I feel like I’ve done that in my rookie season. Hopefully I can keep doing that as I get older in my professional career. Obviously, the next level is where I want to be.”

First things first, though. For now, Johnson is just enjoying Utah’s remarkable run in the Kelly Cup Playoffs. For he and the few teammates who didn’t spend much of the regular season shuffling back and forth between the ECHL and the AHL, this is indeed the most fun the Grizzlies have had in quite some time.

“It’s awesome,” Johnson said. “The group of guys we’ve had all year, we’ve been really close. It’s a great bunch of guys and we all want to win it for each other. We have a great captain in Travis Rycroft. He’s the heart and soul of our team and leads by example. It just filters right down through the rest of the team.”

A team that perhaps nobody outside the Grizzlies’ organization believed in heading into the postseason. Since that time, Utah has eliminated the Fresno Falcons and Victoria Salmon Kings en route to the conference finals. The Salmon Kings finished the regular season atop the West Division with 91 points.

"I have to use my speed to my advantage, that's the key to my success." -- Keith Johnson
Perhaps this playoff run will lead to a long-overdue coaching opportunity for Christie in the AHL? The 39-year-old has a career regular season record of 307-203-66 (.590 winning percentage) and is sixth all-time in career wins at the ECHL level. He has led his teams to the Kelly Cup Playoffs six times.

“He deserves a lot of the credit,” Johnson said of Christie. “He kept us together even when we were dressing seven or eight forwards in the lineup. He’s definitely a great coach. For a rookie, he’s taught me a lot.”

“Right now, the No. 1 focus is the guys here,” Christie said. “You can’t expect it. You have to come down and make sure you win games and develop players. That’s the No. 1 thing I’m focused on – that guys get an opportunity to go to the next level and that they’re ready for it. I just want to put a good product on the ice and win hockey games.”   

As for Johnson, should he continue to produce and the Grizzlies continue to reel off victories this postseason, maybe he and Smith can be teammates again just one step away from the NHL.

“It’s good to see stories like that,” Johnson said. “I actually had the privilege to play with Smitty the first couple of months in Utah. He’s a great player and he finished off a great season in Bridgeport. You look at that and you know you can get up there to that next level and contribute just like he did. I’m happy for him.”

Around the ECHL --
The Cincinnati Cyclones, who had 115 points in the regular season, survived a phenomenal seven-game series against the Reading Royals and will face the South Carolina Stingrays in the American Conference Finals, with the first game of the best-of-seven series set for tonight in Cincinnati. Between the regular season and the playoffs, the Cyclones have won 63 games. South Carolina also went the limit to reach this point, as it defeated the Columbia Inferno in a decisive fifth game. … The Wheeling Nailers acquired the rights to defensemen Tyson Marsh and Julien Brouillette and forward Steve McJannet from Columbia to complete the March 5 trade that sent Jeremy Swanson and Chris Brooks to the Inferno.

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