PITCH: UNHERALDED youngster outperforms superstar veterans to lead his team on an amazing playoff run. While certain NHL postseason heroics seem like something out of a movie, 24-year-old center Tyler Johnson's 2015 is the only one Hollywood would actually put out. In other words, it's a remake.
As a 17-year-old rookie and rare American in the Western Hockey League, Johnson led his hometown Spokane Chiefs to the league championship and was named the finals' most valuable player. He helped Team USA win what was then only its second World Junior Championship gold, in 2010, chipping in three goals and two assists. And in '11--12, his first pro season after signing as an undrafted free agent with Tampa Bay's AHL affiliate Norfolk Admirals, Johnson had 14 points in 14 playoff games as his team won the Calder Cup.
Now the diminutive Johnson (5'9", 175 pounds) is once again propelling his squad on the big stage. He led the Lightning with eight goals and 12 points through 12 playoff games and has emerged as a surprise Conn Smythe candidate alongside stars such as the Ducks' Corey Perry and the Blackhawks' Patrick Kane. In light of his playoff history, though, perhaps the only surprise is that Johnson waited until his second season to break out.
"Johnny's a special player, and it's amazing how he seems to rise to the occasion at the biggest times," Lightning coach Jon Cooper said after Johnson scored two goals with his team facing elimination against Detroit in Game 6 of round one. Against Montreal, Johnson rose highest when the clock ran low. With 1.1 seconds remaining in regulation of Game 3, he tapped home a perfect feed from defenseman Victor Hedman to put the Lightning up 2--1 in the game and 3--0 in the series. A buzzer beater—the perfect sports movie clichè.
Even more amazing than his scoring surge, though, has been the variety of ways he has tallied: two off passes, one off a deflection, two on breakaways, one off a rebound and two by simply blowing past defenders. None have been cheap.
Johnson's playoff ascent won't shock anyone who has even casually followed the Lightning the past two seasons. Last year he was a finalist for the Calder Trophy, tying with winner Nathan MacKinnon for most goals by a rookie, with 24. This season he tied center Steven Stamkos, the Bolts' captain, for the team lead with 72 points in the regular season.
Still, for a player who twice participated in training camp with the Wild without receiving a contract offer, any level of success qualifies as a pleasant surprise. After Minnesota was swept by the Blackhawks in round one, including a shutout at home, Wild management is no doubt watching this Lightning run with more than a twinge of regret.
Johnson's story echoes that of former Tampa Bay captain Martin St. Louis's. Both are short (St. Louis, now with the Rangers, is listed at 5'8") and were passed over in the draft due to their size. Johnson shares St. Louis's speed, skill and willingness to engage physically despite his stature. And in a good omen for the Lightning, St. Louis too had a breakout playoff performance the first season he led the team in points—2003--04, the year Tampa won its first and only championship.
When St. Louis lifted the Cup, his elation betrayed how far he had been from that dream at different points in his career. Johnson's Hollywood ending would probably look similar. And yet the emotional appeal of his Conn Smythe candidacy is only stronger having seen St. Louis play out the script before.
That's why remakes happen. Some stories never get old.
For a player who twice played in an NHL camp without earning a contract, any success is a surprise.
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