Join Date: May 2002
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COYOTES AND JOHNSON READY FOR LEAFS
By:_ Damon Markiewicz
There is an old saying in hockey, “tonight is just another game.”_ For Phoenix Coyotes right wing Mike Johnson that may hold true in many situations, but Thursday night’s game against the Toronto Maple Leafs at America West Arena is an exception._
The Maple Leafs return to the desert for the first time since the 1997-98 season and not only represent the franchise in which Johnson started his professional career, but they also symbolize his hometown team._
Johnson, who is a native of Toronto, will play against the Maple Leafs for the sixth time in his pro career on Thursday and he is looking for continued success against the Leafs.
“As a native of Ontario, there is some extra emotion that is generated when playing the Maple Leafs,” said Johnson, who has three goals and three assists in five career games against Toronto._ “I know all of my friends and family will be able to watch the game on television and the fact that it is an organization I spent some time with, I am pretty excited about the game.”
It was with the Maple Leafs organization in which Johnson started his professional career._ After concluding his collegiate career at Bowling Green University, Johnson signed with the Maple Leafs as a free agent on March 16, 1997._ For a youngster that grew up not far from the historic Maple Leaf Garden, signing a contract with Toronto was a thrill.
“Coming out of college, to have the opportunity to sign a pro contract was exciting,” said Johnson, who recorded his first point in his National Hockey League debut on March 16, 1997._ “The fact that it was Toronto was a bonus and I am thankful to the organization for giving me my start in the League._ I still have a lot of friends on the Maple Leafs and I see a lot of the guys on their team during the summer, so it will be a fun night.”
For Johnson, not only did he have to prove himself as a rookie, but also had to show he was capable of playing in the NHL as an undrafted player._ The 6-foot-2, 201-pound right winger was never drafted, a challenge Johnson faced and concurred.
“I was a late bloomer and my game developed at a later age than most players,” said Johnson._ “I certainly don’t hold a grudge that I wasn’t drafted, if I was a general manager and watched me play when I was 18-years-old, I probably wouldn’t have selected my either._ In the end, not being drafted was probably the best thing for me and everything has worked out well for everyone.”
After joining the Maple Leafs for 13 games at the end of the 1996-97 season, Johnson recorded 15-32-47 totals in 82 games during the 1997-98 campaign, his first full season in the NHL._ Johnson’s rookie year also marks the last season in which Toronto visited the Valley.
“I remember Toronto’s last visit to AWA very well,” said Johnson, who was presented with an official game sheet from that contest after Wednesday’s practice by members of the media.__ “I was held scoreless against the Coyotes in that game, but I think we tied 1-1.”
No, in fact the Coyotes beat the Maple Leafs 4-2 in their last meeting in Phoenix on March 24, 1998._ Besides changing organiztions, the evolution of Johnson’s game has also occurred since Toronto’s last visit to Phoenix._ Johnson has gone from a youngster fresh out of college back in 1998, to a leader on this year’s Coyotes team.
“Having the experience that I have now, my game has definitely evolved from when I was a younger player,” said Johnson, who led the team in scoring during the 2002-03 season._ “Every player goes through a learning process within the League and I am no different._ I have reached a point in my career in which I have a familiarity with what to expect and I can pass that along to the younger players.”_____
Looking ahead to the 2003 version of the Maple Leafs, Johnson realizes Toronto is another tough Eastern Conference opponent that despite their current struggles to score goals, they have the talent level to breakout on any given night._ Toronto’s offense has only produced seven goals in their first five games and they have a record of 1-2-2-0 on the young season.
“You look at their lineup and realize that there aren’t too many weaknesses,” said Johnson._ “They have forwards with a lot of speed, experienced defensemen and one of the top goaltenders in the NHL in Ed Belfour._ We will need to be ready to play.”
WAYNE’S WORLD – Coyotes managing partner and alternate governor Wayne Gretzky skated with the team during Wednesday’s practice at the ALLTEL Ice Den._ Gretzky skated for the entire 60-minute workout and had an opportunity to interact with this year’s team.
“I just wanted an opportunity to get back on the ice and skate around with the guys,” said Gretzky._ “I had a lot of fun with the players today and it was enjoyable. We have a good mixture of players on this team and our younger guys have really elevated their play through our first five games.”
WORKING ON THE POWER PLAY – Phoenix’s power play has been productive during the first two weeks of the season having converted on four of their 22 opportunities for a success rate of 18.2%, which ranks 12th in the NHL._ Coyotes special teams consultant Paul Coffey worked with the power play units on Tuesday and Wednesday and has been impressed with the efforts from Phoenix’s specialty teams.
“The power play units have really been moving the puck well and generating quality scoring chances,” said Coffey._ “There is a lot of depth on this team and it shows with how many different guys can be placed on the man advantage._ I have just tried to assist the guys on the power play, especially the defense and present any insight that I can offer.”
HRDINA BACK ON ICE – A day after missing Tuesday’s practice with a twisted ankle suffered during off-ice workouts, Jan Hrdina practiced with the team on Wednesday and skated a regular shift._ He is expected to be in the lineup on Thursday.
SILLINGER GETTING CLOSE – Center Mike Sillinger is inching closer to a return to the Coyotes lineup after having hernia surgery in early October._ A gameday decision will be made on Thursday to see if Sillinger will be in the lineup against the Maple Leafs._ If Sillinger is cleared to play, a roster move is expected to maintain a 23-man roster.
PHOENIX COYOTES (3-2-0-0)
Goals – Daymond Langkow/Shane Doan/Ladislav Nagy (2)
Assists – Paul Mara (4)
Points – Shane Doan/Daymond Langkow/Mike Johnson/Paul Mara (4)
Goaltenders – Sean Burke (3-1-0, 1.72 gaa, .942 save percentage)
TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS (1-2-2-0)
Goals – Nik Antropov (2)
Assists –Ric Jackman/Tomas Kaberle (2)
Points – Ric Jackman_ (3)
Goaltenders – Ed Belfour (1-2-2-0, 2.64 gaa, .876 save percentage)