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Nick Johnson's Whirlwind Tour Lands Him Back in Pittsburgh

by Jason Seidling / Pittsburgh Penguins
Penguins winger Nick Johnson celebrates his first career NHL goal against the Washington Capitals on Jan. 21.

Credit - Getty Images
Nick Johnson has found himself caught up in a whirlwind tour the past week. At about 5 p.m. on Wednesday night he got the call that he was being summoned to Pittsburgh, along with Dustin Jeffrey, to fill in for the injured Pascal Dupuis and Maxime Talbot.

Johnson and Jeffrey arrived in Pittsburgh at 11 p.m. that night. The next day Johnson made his NHL debut against the Washington Capitals – playing right wing on a line with reigning Art Ross Trophy winner Evgeni Malkin, nonetheless.

Johnson didn’t take long to make his mark at the NHL level. At 2:50 of the second period he picked up his first career goal to tie the game, 2-2.

Standing uncovered in front of Capitals goaltender Jose Theodore, Johnson picked up a loose puck off the blade of Malkin and quickly turned the puck over from his backhand to his forehand before tossing it into the open cage.

“I think I was on our bench-board side, and they were breaking in on the other side,” Johnson said. “I think Feds (Ruslan Fedotenko) threw it at the net, and Malkin just chipped it over to me on the far side. I was all by myself with a whole huge net waiting for me, so it was nice.

“Luckily, I didn’t think about it. I just got the puck and put it in. My eyes lit up, I guess.”

Johnson didn’t have too much time to think about his first NHL game as he was subsequently returned to WBS on Friday morning along with Jeffrey. Both players were in the lineup for the Baby Penguins’ 6-3 win at Syracuse against the Crunch on Friday night.

But instead of heading to Adirondack with the rest of his team for Saturday’s game against the Phantoms, Johnson was on the move again – this time to Philadelphia – as he was recalled again by the Penguins on Saturday.

Judging from head coach Dan Bylsma’s comments following Johnson’s debut on Thursday, it’s no surprise the 6-foot-2, 202-pound winger is back with the parent team.

“He’s a guy we’ve been pushing to play here with his speed and he’s a good right shot and adds a little grit going to the net and in the corners,” Bylsma said. “I thought he did that (on Thursday) pretty well.”

How has Johnson’s stock risen so rapidly? If we rewind the calendar to earlier this season we find our answer.

Can an injury really be a blessing in disguise? That’s a question nobody knows a sure answer to, but in the case of Johnson, maybe his early season ankle injury was a blessing.

Following an eye-opening training camp with Pittsburgh where Johnson gave several strong performances both in the team’s scrimmages and exhibition contests, he struggled a bit at the beginning of the campaign upon returning to WBS.

Then came an ankle injury – one which he thought would only keep him out two or three weeks, but instead kept him sidelined for five. This absence proved to be the turning point in Johnson’s season.

“It’s not good to get hurt,” Johnson said. “It definitely let me not watch the game as a fan so much but re-evaluate how I approach the game.

“It gave me a chance to read a little sports psychology and it also allowed me to watch some of the tendencies that I thought I had to have. In that sense it helped me. I guess I’m a little better for being hurt.”

Johnson probably isn’t better for being hurt, but all the mental work he did those five weeks allowed him to regain the form he displayed in the postseason when he tied for second on WBS with 10 points (4G-6A) in 12 games.

Upon his return in December, Johnson was reunited with center Mark Letestu – a pairing which worked so well at the end of last season and through the playoffs. Rounding out the trio was Jeffrey, who has spent a majority of this season ranked in the top-five of the AHL scoring race.

It would probably be an understatement to say playing with those two had a positive effect on Johnson’s game. In his first 12 games following the injury Johnson picked up six goals and 16 points.

Johnson credited his linemates’ playmaking skills as a primary reason for his hot stretch.

“Letestu is a great passer and he can score, too,” he said. “Jeffrey always seems to get the puck through to you. We are all good skaters. We seem to have a nose for where each other are in the offensive zone.”

Even with his offensive prowess in WBS and one goal in one game with the parent club, Johnson knows the kind of game he is going to need to play if he wants permanent employment at the NHL level.

“My goal is to be a second or third line guy who can make plays and can score,” Johnson said. “I want to be able to play any role asked of me. Obviously the third line right now is exceptional at that. Those are the kind of guys I want to play like.”

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