DETROIT — Tyler Johnson stood in a PNC Arena tunnel Sunday night, waiting with teammates to take the ice for the third period against the Hurricanes.
He was 20 minutes from his stunning, season-opening scoring slump reaching 13 games. It had gotten so ridiculous that he said he had to laugh. Having tried everything, Johnson, 25, turned to Fox Sports Sun broadcasters Paul Kennedy and Bobby "The Chief" Taylor for some karmic help. The All-Star stuck out his stick blade.
"Rub this for good luck," he said.
After Johnson finally scored, the eventual winner midway through the third of a 4-3 victory, he joked that Kennedy and Taylor need to repeat the ritual before every period. His teammates don't think such superstition will be needed, sensing the impact the slump-busting tally had on Johnson's psyche heading into tonight's game against the Red Wings.
"It's a big sigh of relief, you could just see it," captain Steven Stamkos said. "He'll obviously move on now and hopefully bring his game up.
"The floodgates are going to open for him."
They certainly did last season, when Johnson had just one goal in his first 15 games before ending with 29 in the regular season and 13 more in the remarkable playoff run to the Stanley Cup final. Coach Jon Cooper noted that Johnson had been playing well without scoring — he's among the team leaders in scoring chances, first in shots (33) and is a plus-1. Johnson said everyone goes through slumps, noting the toughest part was not getting rewarded after being so close so many times.
"I'd be lying if I said I wasn't frustrated about it," Johnson said. "But, at the same time, you can't focus too much on that, even if you're playing well you can't focus on scoring goals or having points. It's all about trying to (help) the team success, that's the little things. It all kind of works out."
Johnson recalled a similar stretch he went through in the 2012-13 season with AHL Syracuse, with he and linemates Ondrej Palat and Richard Panik at wit's end.
"We thought we were going to have to retire after that," Johnson said, laughing.
Johnson finished with 37 goals and the AHL MVP award. But even the most gifted scorers doubt whether they'll ever get another goal after going that long without one.
"I've been through that before in my career," said Stamkos, a two-time Rocket Richard Trophy winner as the league's top goal scorer. "But he's been getting his chances, and it's the old cliche, as long as you get the chances, you know eventually they're going to go in. Obviously it's tough when you're actually going through it to keep that mind-set because frustration sets in, you get those thoughts. But he shot the puck and it went in."
While his Triplets line was broken up for the third time in 13 games — and could open tonight's game apart — Johnson was still paired with Nikita Kucherov. Midway through the third, Johnson took the puck in front of the Lightning net and sent a feed past mid-ice to Kucherov. Kucherov darted into the slot on a 2-on-1 before dropping a pass to a trailing Johnson in the right circle. There would be no more give-and-go. "I told Kuch after, 'Hey I'm sorry, I wasn't going to pass it to you no matter what,' " Johnson said.
Palat said everyone on the bench was "waiting for that short-side shot."
"It's Johnny's shot," defenseman Victor Hedman said.
The puck soared over goalie Cam Ward's left shoulder, banged off the back bar out into the crease. Johnson knew right away it was in, but there was no wild celebration. He triumphantly raised his stick with his right hand, letting out a yell — and a huge grin — before hugging Hedman.
"He's a happy guy," Hedman said.
The Lightning bench exploded with chatter, Cooper wishing there was a microphone to capture it all. Now that the slump was snapped, teammates could give Johnson grief, and they did. He can laugh about it now, even after a question of whether he considered retirement again.
"I don't know," he said, smiling. "I'll keep that to myself."
Contact Joe Smith at [email protected]. Follow @TBTImes_JSmith.