TAMPA — Watching Tyler Johnson race down the right-wing side on a short-handed odd-man rush Thursday night, flashbacks from earlier in the season fluttered into view.
During the first two months of the season, Johnson seemed to get breakaways on a regular basis only to be turned aside or miss the net as he rushed his shot. But Thursday, Johnson came in on Craig Anderson, made a quick, subtle move, and as soon as Anderson dropped to his knees, he roofed the puck over the goaltender’s left shoulder for his first career short-handed goal.
“At the beginning of the season I might have shot it right away,’’ Johnson said. “If I was to have shot that right away (Thursday) I knew there was no way it would go in, so I just took an extra second, and that’s kind of a confidence thing.’’
In his first full season in the NHL, the 23-year-old rookie has begun to draw some eyes in his direction. In the wake of the loss of Steven Stamkos, who went down with a broken leg Nov. 11, Johnson has seen his role increase as he stepped in as a top-two center. He carries a career-best-tying four-game scoring streak into tonight’s game against Colorado and he is second in scoring among rookies with 31 points, trailing only Avalanche center Nathan MacKinnon, the first overall pick in the 2013 draft.
Johnson, undrafted out of juniors and signed as a free agent by Tampa Bay, has started to garner attention for his play and he has entered the conversation for the Calder Trophy, chosen by both The Hockey News and Yahoo Sports as one of the top three finalists at the season’s midpoint.
“The fact that his name is in this conversation means that he has developed into a player well beyond what anybody ever thought, and that’s a testament to him,’’ Lightning coach Jon Cooper said.
A few weeks after Stamkos went down with his injury, Johnson and fellow rookie Ondrej Palat were paired on a line with captain Marty St. Louis, and the trio has remained together since Dec. 5.
“I think he’s getting more comfortable out there,’’ St. Louis said. “The game has probably slowed down a little bit in his head. I think he reads the ice a little bit better. It takes time, you need reps in the trenches, you learn from your mistakes and from your success and all that makes you grow.’’
Johnson has grown into a player counted on in all situations by Cooper — taking faceoffs, killing penalties, perched on the top power-play unit and key defensive responsibilities.
The 5-foot-9, 180-pound center leads all rookie forwards in ice time, averaging 18 minutes, 37 seconds per game, while no other rookie forward averages more than 17:01. Johnson has also taken 823 faceoffs, the most of any rookie, and plays nearly two minutes per night on the penalty kill. Johnson’s plus-14 rating is third among rookies, and his six goals on the road are second-most by a rookie.
Then there was the game against Pittsburgh in November when Johnson was handed the task of going head-to-head against Sidney Crosby, showing how far Johnson has come in his first year in the NHL.
“When you come into this league, it’s a way different mentality playing against the best players in the world, it gets in your head a little bit,’’ Johnson said. “I think at the beginning of the year you do more of the simpler play, maybe you’re clutching your stick a little too tight, but now I’m just trying to play my game.’’
Stamkos took part in a full practice Friday, participating in all drills including taking line rushes. Though he was still wearing a red no-contact jersey, Stamkos said his 10-week X-ray continued to show his broken right tibia is making progress and he is expected to begin light contact during today’s morning skate.
“I got the X-ray last night, we had a good chat with the doctors and they are very pleased with how the bone is healing,’’ Stamkos said. “I think it’s pretty close to a point where it’s probably going to come down to how I’m feeling out there. Now we are probably going to progress to light contact and try and gauge it a little more. For the most part, the skating and crossovers feel fine and that’s a positive, so probably the next step would be engaging in some light contact.’’