MINNEAPOLIS — As unwelcome as it seemed on the surface, Will Johnson knew deep down the move was warranted.
After playing the first nine games of his senior season on the University of Wisconsin men’s hockey team’s first line with center Seamus Malone, Johnson got dropped to right wing of the fourth line in November.
As demotions go, it was a pretty obvious one delivered by UW coach Tony Granato.
“Tony gave me a wake-up call and made me realize that I’ve got to be out there working hard and play my style of game,” Johnson said.
Message received. But that was only half the battle; Johnson had to show Granato he was willing to go to work in front of the net and in his defensive zone to get his top-line spot back.
“It was something even I knew I needed,” Johnson said. “I was slacking off. I think it gave me an invigorating thing where I just wanted to be out there to prove myself and prove to everybody that I should be there.”
How has it gone? Ask Granato, who said Johnson now has the understanding of how he can best help the team.
“He’s finishing his senior year the way you would hope,” he said. “He’s leaving it on the ice and (has) done a really nice job for us.”
The downgrade was a brief one, and Johnson will take his regular place alongside Malone on the top line tonight when the Badgers open a two-game Big Ten Conference series at Minnesota.
It’ll be a week removed from what Granato called perhaps Johnson’s best outing of the season. In last Friday’s contest against Notre Dame at the Kohl Center, Johnson scored a power-play goal on a loose puck around the net and generated other chances.
“I love how he’s battled for that position and been very good at it,” Granato said.
Johnson, who leads Badgers forwards at plus-10 and has recorded four goals in his past seven games, is much like the team as a whole: He seems close to a breakthrough but hasn’t fully realized it.
UW has gone four games without a victory since resuming play after the semester break even though it was tied in the third period of all of them.
“It’s great that we’re close, but you can never be satisfied with losing,” Johnson said. “Even if you played your heart out, if you lose you’re just not going to be happy about it.”
The Badgers (8-10-4, 4-4-4-1 Big Ten) face a stretch in which they play eight of 10 games on the road starting at Minnesota (9-10-4, 6-5-3). Even though it’s the first time the teams have both sported losing overall records entering a Border Battle series since March 1999, the rivalry always makes for intrigue.
“That’s why you come to the University of Wisconsin, for that Wisconsin-Minnesota rivalry,” Johnson said. “It’s a fun game. We’ve got a lot of guys from our team that are from there, and they want to beat them. I’m from California, and I want to beat them.”
Johnson joined the Badgers after stops in the North American Hockey League and with the United States Hockey League’s Madison Capitols. He started as a roller hockey player in Santa Barbara, California, before turning his attention to the ice.
He’s one of 47 from the Golden State playing Division I men’s hockey this season, two behind Wisconsin for sixth in state representation.
But Johnson’s original course would have kept him closer to home. Air Force showed interest, and he first committed there.
“Being a California kid, I was 16, and I just thought, ‘If I’m getting an offer, I’ve got to take it because it’s the only offer I’ll probably ever receive,’” Johnson said. “I was very fortunate to get more offers. They’re a great school and I’ve got nothing but respect for Air Force. But the University of Wisconsin came calling, and I had to answer.”
Johnson scored 10 goals as a sophomore in 2016-17 and is challenging to reach double figures again this season, with seven through 22 games.
After a November stretch of seven games without a point, he scored twice with an assist against Penn State on Dec. 1. His second goal that night started a rally from a 5-3 deficit for an 8-5 victory, and it was a result of work around the opponent’s net for a rebound.
“He’s been working his (butt) off all year and it’s starting to show for him,” said Malone, who has been Johnson’s center for most of the past two seasons. “He’s been playing some of the best hockey I’ve seen him play.”
The wake-up call Granato levied earlier this season was especially intense for Johnson because of the clock that’s ticking down on his college career. He already has completed the credits for an economics degree with a minor in legal studies, and he’s taking an online class in the spring semester that began this week.
Johnson said he’d love to keep playing hockey after graduation if the opportunity arises. For now, he has a little more motivation for his final months as a college player.
“You don’t really realize it at the start, but it goes by really quick,” Johnson said. “I’m just trying to take it a little slower and appreciating every little thing, even if it’s snow falling outside or if it’s getting to skate at 7 a.m. It’s always fun. I’m just trying to enjoy it while I can.”