by Samantha Wood || for NHL.com
Tyler Johnson is all in.
To borrow another poker phrase, Johnson and many of his Syracuse Crunch teammates are looking to make it two of a kind – as in Calder Cup championship rings.
After winning the American Hockey League championship with a record-setting Norfolk Admirals club last year, Johnson and the rest of the Tampa Bay Lightning’s top prospects moved 500 miles north to Syracuse, N.Y., in an affiliation change. Now, with a different crest on their jerseys, they’re heading into the Calder Cup Finals once again.
“Last year we had an unbelievable year,” Johnson said. “It was a dream come true to win the Calder Cup and have so much success. And going into this year, we wanted to repeat as champions. Having that success last year gave us that confidence.
“We’ve been through it all, so it’s helped us out to keep us on track and motivated through this entire year.”
Their motivation has paid dividends on the ice. The Crunch won the East Division crown during the regular season, and are 11-1 through the first three rounds of the playoffs, steamrolling Portland, Springfield and Wilkes-Barre/Scranton to put a Syracuse team in the Calder Cup Finals for the first time since 1938.
The Crunch will face the Grand Rapids Griffins in the Calder Cup Finals beginning Saturday (7 ET, free streaming at AHLLive.com). The Griffins, bolstered by the return of Gustav Nyquist and Joakim Andersson from the parent Detroit Red Wings, knocked off Oklahoma City in a classic seven-game Western Conference final series.
“I know that they’re a good team and I know that they have good players and a lot of skill,” Johnson said of the Griffins. “It’s going to be a battle for us and hopefully we’re ready for it.
“It’s the Finals. It’s the two best teams going at it. It’ll come down to whatever team wants it more and hopefully that’s us.”
Including Johnson, there are 10 current Crunch players who helped hoist the Cup with Norfolk last June. Although that’s an experience that binds them, Johnson said the entire team plays as a unit, regardless of where they were playing a year ago.
“The thing with our team, the thing that makes us so great, is that we play for each other,” said the second-year pro from Spokane, Wash. “Everyone on the team is very unselfish and we’d do anything for each other, we stick up for each other. I think that goes a long way in hockey and in this league.
“The entire [Lightning] organization is a tight-knit family. We’re very close and everyone’s happy for you when you get to go up to the NHL and live your dream.”
There were plenty of opportunities for teammates to be happy for each other this season. A total of 18 players skated for both the Crunch and the Lightning in 2012-13, including seven who made their NHL debuts. And that doesn’t count Jon Cooper, who was promoted from Syracuse to become Tampa Bay’s head coach on March 25.
Johnson – who in 163 AHL regular-season and playoff games since the start of last season has 83 goals, 164 points and a plus-64 rating – made his own NHL debut on March 14 against the New York Islanders and would go on to log 14 games with the parent club, contributing three goals and three assists for six points.
“It was something that I’ve always wanted to do and I was fortunate that I was able to have some success up there,” Johnson said. “But the best thing about it was that I was able to share that with a lot of the guys that I’d played with. There were a lot of us up there and it made things a little bit easier because we were up there together and going through the exact same transition.
“We were able to rely on each other a little bit.”
Now back in Syracuse, Johnson and his teammates will have to rely on each other even more to start the series strong and potentially go home with the Calder Cup. All told, the Crunch playoff roster has a combined 117 NHL games under its belt this season alone, so the skill level is high and the stakes are even higher.
Though winning is the goal, Johnson admits that the experience as a whole is just as valuable.
“The AHL has helped me more than anything else,” Johnson said. “When I came into the league last year, in my mind I wasn’t a kid, but in reality looking back at it, I was definitely still a kid. There was a lot of learning for me to do.
“The AHL made me the person I am today and I’m very fortunate that I was able to have these two years in this league.”