It was fast coming up on 24 hours since Nick Johnson had pulled into Pittsburgh when he stood in the Penguins' locker room Thursday at Mellon Arena and talked about his night.
The right winger knew he should be upset about losing, and he was, but he couldn't completely quell his excitement.
After all, he had just played in his first NHL game, a highly hyped rivalry match between the Penguins and the Washington Capitals. He also scored his first goal, and it came on an assist from center Evgeni Malkin, the reigning league scoring champion and playoff MVP.
"I wanted to play well, I wanted us to win, and it hurts a little bit," Johnson said. "But overall it was kind of a cool night."
The memory might have to last for a while. Although Johnson, a 6-foot-1, 183-pound power forward, apparently remains firmly on the Penguins' radar, he and forward Dustin Jeffrey were reassigned to Wilkes-Barre/Scranton of the American Hockey League yesterday, a day after they filled in for forwards Max Talbot and Pascal Dupuis.
That's an indication that Talbot (undisclosed injury) and Dupuis (facial injury) might be ready to return tomorrow when the Penguins play at Philadelphia. The team had the day off yesterday.
Johnson could return to the big-league roster when there is an opening.
He plays on the top line for Wilkes-Barre with Jeffrey and Mark Letestu. Johnson had seven goals, 22 points in 26 games before the Baby Penguins played at Springfield last night.
Johnson, 25, was a third-round draft pick by the Penguins in 2004, just after he was named Canadian Junior A player of the year after getting 71 points in 51 games for St. Albert, and just before he began his four years at Dartmouth, where he won two Ivy League titles and earned a psychology degree.
In 12 shifts over 9:21 of ice time against the Capitals, he played mostly on a line with Malkin and left winger Ruslan Fedotenko, who each had three assists.
"They were on. They were going," Johnson said. "I tried to just chip in there when I could, skate when I could. On that one play it worked out."
That would be his goal. Later, there was a play that didn't work out so well.
Johnson tied the score, 2-2, at 2:50 of the second period, less than a minute after Washington had taken its first lead.
The play developed down the left side. Capitals goaltender Jose Theodore stopped Fedotenko and Malkin, who finally got the puck to Johnson. He had come down the right side and to the net unmarked and had only to pull the puck from his backhand to his forehand and push it into a gaping net.
"[Malkin] took a whack at it and then he just tried to hit it again, get it to someone free," Johnson said. "Maybe he knew I was there, maybe he didn't. He probably did. He just kind of whacked it over."
Well, sort of. It wasn't intended as a pass to Johnson, Malkin revealed with a laugh.
"No, it was a shot, a missed shot," Malkin said. "It was a lucky bounce."
Malkin was impressed with Johnson and liked having a left-shooting winger on the left in Fedotenko and a right shot in Johnson on the right side.
"Johnson played very well [for his] first game," Malkin said. "Someone who shoots right has a lot of chances to score."
Johnson got a game puck, but he also will carry with him an expensive lesson. He helped enable Alexander Semin to spring Capitals teammate Tomas Fleischmann for a breakaway and game-turning goal that gave Washington a 4-3 lead early in the third period.
Johnson fell back to offer defensive support while Penguins defenseman Kris Letang joined the offense. Letang was caught deep when the puck started going the other way, and Fleischmann took off.
"I knew he was behind me," Johnson said of Fleischmann. "Semin had the puck and I thought he was going to throw it quick, so I tried to get in position and he kind of held it for longer than I thought he would and he chipped it."
Penguins coach Dan Bylsma outlined what went wrong.
"If they put the puck in the air, that's a tough position to be in," he said. "[Johnson] has got a couple of choices -- use his glove, let [Fleischmann] have the puck and skate hard back. It's tempting to use your stick. That's what he went with. That's a hit-or-miss play. He missed, and it gave them the breakaway."
Johnson knew immediately he had made a mistake.
"I should have used my hand," he said. "Instead, I tried to knock [the puck] out of the air with my stick. It's tough to knock a slow one out of the air. A little mistake. I'll use my hand next time. Obviously, frustrating."
But just one part of a night he'll remember.
For more on the Penguins, read the Pens Plus blog with Dave Molinari and Shelly Anderson at www.post-gazette.com/plus . Shelly Anderson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1721. First Published January 23, 2010 5:00 AM