Before last night's game, a giveaway 5-3 loss to the Flyers, I decided that my focus for the evening would be on Aaron Johnson. I'm sure that having a blogger watch his every move is exactly what a young defensemen returning from injury is hoping for. I'm also sure that it would not make the least bit of difference to him. If, in some fantasy world, he did care about what anyone other than his coaches had to say, he would be relieved to know that the game provided plenty of distractions for these eyes.
Johnson was pressed into service after two and half months on the shelf with a knee injury, and two rehab games at Bridgeport, as a result of injuries to Radek Martinek, Brendan Witt, and Chris Campoli. Johnson opened the game playing the left side, paired with Marc-Andre Bergeron. Johnson's mobility looked good from the start. Early in the first period, he made a nice recovery from coughing up the puck on offense to break up a rush by the Flyers. Ted Nolan showed confidence in Johnson from the beginning by giving him time on the penalty kill, where he played on the right side paired with Andy Sutton. This pair was on the ice for the Flyers' first goal, scored on the power play at 5:21.
Despite a couple of instances of sloppy play along the boards in the offensive zone, Johnson came through his first period back in the NHL looking like he belonged. Meanwhile, Rick DiPietro tied Chris Osgood's team record for assists in a season by a goalie with his fourth helper on Richard Park's breakaway goal, which tied the game 1-1. Bryan Berard turned in very mixed results in the first with two assists and three giveaways. Johnson finished the first frame with 8 shifts and 5:38 in total ice time. Substantial power-play time for the Isles likely cut into his minutes.
In the second period, Johnson once again demonstrated that his knee was sound by performing a full layout dive to knock the puck outside the defensive zone. Nolan continued to eschew the idea of easing him back in by adding power-play time to Johnson's responsibilities. With the extra man, Johnson played alongside Bruno Gervais. The second period, of course, was the undoing for the Islanders in this game. The period opened with the Islanders failing to convert on the remainder of a double minor to Scottie Upshall. This was followed by Trent Hunter getting involved with more than he could handle in a fight with Derian Hatcher. It was not Hunter's idea to scuffle, and it showed. The period ended with the score 3-3, the Flyers having rebounded from a 3-1 deficit. After two, Johnson had 18 shifts, 12:15 of total ice time, 1:30 on the power play, and 2:13 on the PK. His number of shifts at this point was equal to that of Gervais and Freddy Meyer, and he had been on the ice for two of the three goals against.
The third period completed the Islanders' collapse. Early on, Johnson was again on the ice for a Flyer power play goal, but it was apparent by this time that bad luck and bad team defense were the root cause of evil, not a 24-year-old defenseman. Nolan confirmed after the game that the result was not the fault of the defensive corps, but a teamwide failure to play the simple brand of hockey that makes his players most likely to succeed. While the two goals scored with DiPietro out of the net were the result of bad caroms, I can't give Rick a free pass. He noted that 99 times out of 100, he stops the puck around the boards that led to the go-ahead goal, or it just goes by him. I thought he had little chance of stopping this particular one and should have stayed closer to the net, especially after already having been burned by a bad bounce.
Johnson concluded the evening with 26 shifts, which tied him for the team high with Gervais. His total ice time was 18:23 (6th highest), with 2:13 on the PP and 2:32 on the PK. Mark Herrman, covering the game for Newsday, was unintentionally very cooperative by asking for Johnson to be one of the players brought before the press. I had intended to ask Nolan how his utilization of Johnson compared to what he had actually planned going into the game. Unable to fit that question into a crowded press conference, I directed a similar question to Johnson, to which he replied:
"Yeah, I mean a little more than I expected, to be honest. I didn't expect to play as much, but anyone will tell you the more you play the better you feel, so it felt good. It felt good PK, PP--it's just a matter of getting better each game in here."
With Sunday's announcement that Martinek and Witt will return to the lineup for Monday's Martin Luther King Day matinee against Carolina, it will be interesting to see how soon Johnson gets another opportunity. Assuming everyone else is healthy, Berard is likely headed back to the press box. Based on his recent play, you'd have to guess that Meyer will receive the nod over Johnson. That's only a shame in that I'd like to see how Johnson could apply himself over a stretch of games.
Finally, I just want to take a minute to say that it was a great night in the Blog Box with six bloggers in the box and two more in their regular seats. Jon Jordan of The Long Distance Islander made the trip up from Florida for his first appearance in the Blog Box. He fit right in with the crew, and it was great to meet him and talk hockey. For more coverage on last night's game, check out what 7th Woman (Dee Karl, baker of delicious cookies), B.D. Gallof, The Tiger Track (Tom Liodice), IslesBlogger (Mike Schuerlein), and New York Islander Fan Central (NYIsles1) had to say.