Zak Johnson liked the way his slap shot has been developing the past few years. Now he is getting a chance to use it on the Eugene Generals’ power play.
“It’s something I’ve really worked on a lot, but I’ve actually never been given the opportunity to man the point on the power play,” Johnson said.
When Johnson scored a few early goals on slap shots as he entered the offensive zone, first-year coach Jason Smith decided it was something to try.
“Coach Smith put me up there at the beginning of the year and it has worked out great,” said Johnson, a 20-year-old from Libertyville, Ill., who leads the Northern Pacific League with 15 power-play goals, moving him within two of the Eugene season record. “I have so much confidence in my slap shot.
“I feel like I can put it on net and good things will happen.”
In addition to his power-play goals, Johnson also is second in the NorPac in power-play assists with 18.
Newcomer Christian Merritt has added strength to the penalty kill. When they are not on special teams, they are playing together, leading the Generals, who are getting hot as the postseason approaches.
The Generals are second in the Northern Pacific League but coming off a weekend sweep of the West Sound Warriors, who have clinched the top seed in the Cascade Cup playoffs, which begin March 5.
Johnson and Merritt each had three points Feb. 15 in a 6-5 win over the Warriors. Merritt had two more and Johnson one the next night in a 4-3 victory.
“We made quite a few additions at the trade deadline,” Johnson said. “We’re confident with the additions and the core we already had that we can make a real good playoff push.
“Christian’s a great piece that we added.”
Merritt was Eugene’s captain and second-leading scorer last season. He is also familiar with Smith, who he played for in New Mexico in the North American Hockey League two seasons ago.
After spending much of this season with the Laconia Leafs of the Atlantic Junior Hockey League, Merritt returned to Eugene.
Smith said Merritt is an even stronger player than he was when he made the lineup for an NAHL team two years ago. He gives the team a much-needed threat shorthanded. In just four games, he already has eight goals and four assists, including matching the team lead in short-handed goals (two) and short-handed points (three).
“He played a little bit of PK for me in New Mexico,” Smith said. “He seems to always have his stick in the right position.”
When they are not making the Generals dangerous on special teams, Merritt and Johnson are playing with Josh Arnold, who has also been with the club for just four games.
Merritt had a hat trick in his season debut with Eugene. Arnold put together five points in the new line’s second game.
Merritt is the center on the productive line.
“It’s real easy to play with him,” Johnson said. “I just give him the puck.
“He came up real clutch on the weekend.”
That is something that Johnson, who ranks third in the NorPac in total goals and fourth in both points and penalty minutes, has done often for the Generals this season.
Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc.
For the last 15 years, Ian Walsh has crisscrossed the United States as an NHL official. In this Part 2 of our conversation with Walsh, the 42-year-old Philadelphia native fielded a series of questions discussing life on the road, his conditioning schedule, mentors, on-ice struggles, the evolution of the game and advice for aspiring officials.
USA Hockey: How do you think you've been able to maintain all of the officiating success you've had over the last 15 years?
Ian Walsh: I believe one of my strengths as an official is my work ethic. I come to the rink every night ready to work hard and give 100 percent. I also believe I am very coachable, and when I'm offered a suggestion for improvement, I try very hard to implement that advice into my game.
USAH: What is your conditioning schedule like during the NHL season? How about during the off-season?
Walsh: During the season, conditioning work is more about maintaining what you built up over the summer. The workouts aren't as intense but you must continue to take good care of your body. Game-day workouts usually include a 30-minute bike ride or a couple miles run at the hotel gym. I also like to do some core work and light strength training on top of that.
The weather in Portland is amazing in the summer, and I prefer to be outside and on my road bike. I usually get in about four days a week of riding outdoors to help build my endurance and strength. I try to play hockey a few days a week as well to help work on my skating.
USAH: When did you realize you finally had cemented your career as an official? What was that feeling like?
Walsh: I don't know if you ever get that feeling. Every night is a different challenge in our league. It is a hard, hard league to officiate. The scrutiny of every call, every goal, ever non-call is such a challenge for all of us. The best players and coaches in the world expect us to perform at such a high level every night, and we have to be ready for anything that comes our way. It’s a privilege to be on the ice in the NHL, and I think that is something no official takes for granted.
USAH: What has been your biggest accomplishment to date as an official?
Walsh: Being chosen to participate in four Stanley Cup playoffs is what I'm most proud of. It’s an incredible honor to be selected and that’s the goal for every official each year. Also, being part of the team that was chosen to represent the NHL at the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics was a phenomenal experience and a great opportunity.
USAH: What has been the biggest hurdle/obstacle you've had to overcome in your officiating career?
Walsh: I’ve been lucky so far, knock on wood, that I haven’t had any serious injuries. Other than some bumps and bruises, I’ve been relatively injury-free in my career. The biggest challenge is to be able to bounce back from calls you made that aren't correct. In this day and age, we usually know within minutes after the game if we made a wrong decision. When you make a call that impacts the game, it’s hard on the mind. Unfortunately, we make mistakes and what most people don't understand is that nobody takes it harder than the official making that mistake. Being able to bounce back from a mistake is something all officials must learn to do.
USAH: Who has had the most impact on your officiating career over the past 15 years? What has that person or those people taught you?
Walsh: Nobody has helped me more over my NHL career than fellow referee Paul Devorski. I've worked a lot of games with Paul and we’ve had the opportunity to travel together on the road. As an elite, veteran referee, he has been able to pass down some of his knowledge to me to help me become a better official. Paul is retiring this year, and our staff will sorely miss him.
USAH: How has the game changed, besides speed, since you started in the early 2000s?
Walsh: I would say the biggest change besides the speed of the game would be the use of technology. It is amazing what you see at rink – teams have iPads on the bench, super slo-motion video replays, hi-def video scoreboards, etc. With all that technology, it makes the officials job appear easy. People forget that the official on the ice sees a play one time, in real time, and must make a split-second decision on that play. It often appears quite different when you see a replay in super slo-mo on hi-def after a game.
USAH: What advice can you give aspiring NHL/professional league officials as they progress in their career?
Walsh: I would say make sure you have a backup plan. Making it to the NHL is everyone’s goal, but there are very few jobs available. There are so many factors that go into hiring an official and a lot of those are out of your control. Go and work the highest level available to you. Don't worry about other officials, if you are good enough, the NHL will find you. Also, control what you can control – always work on your skating, know your rules and come to the rink every night with a strong work ethic and a great attitude.
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