The 31-year-old, recalled to the side after being dumped for Australia's first-test victory in Hobart, was at his awkward best at the Melbourne Cricket Ground, belted to all corners of the ground in his first spell, before finding his range after lunch with a withering burst of short-pitched bowling.
Johnson, who finished with team-best figures of 4-63 and captured his 200th test victim, provided a glimpse of the seamer who dominated all comers to win the ICC's cricketer of the year award in 2009, as Sri Lanka crumbled to be dismissed for 156.
He might hope Australia's selectors will ignore the early spell, however, when he leaked runs like a burst dam.
"I was nervous for the first over today just because it was Boxing Day," Johnson, who raised a murmur around the ground when he opened the bowling ahead of the ever-reliable Peter Siddle, told reporters.
"I'd never bowled first on a Boxing Day and we've always batted first.
"It was a bit different today with the big crowd, but one I got past that first over I was fine."
The tattoo-ed Queenslander raised the 67,000 crowd into a frenzy by capturing wicketkeeper Prasanna Jayawardene and seamer Dhammika Prasad in successive balls after lunch, but his hat-trick attempt was classically Johnson.
Steaming in with the crowd roaring, he made a mess of his run-up and overstepped the mark to register a no-ball. Spinner Rangana Herath bunted back the ball without fuss, in any case.
"I almost pulled up halfway through my run-up because I was about to smile and I couldn't concentrate," Johnson said.
"I was thinking to myself to keep my run-up smooth and relaxed and I ended up bowling a no-ball, but it didn't matter in the end because I didn't get him out anyway."
Johnson, who took the prized scalp of Kumar Sangakkara for 58 to register his 200th wicket, has long struggled to maintain consistent line and length and his test appearances have become almost curious cameos in recent years.
He has also struggled to absorb the pressure on the biggest stages, with his most famous meltdowns occurring in the Ashes against bitter foes England.
But a raft of injuries that have gutted Australia's pace bowling stocks could yet keep him in the frame for another redemption shot against the old enemy with back-to-back Ashes series in store in 2013.
Johnson claims his struggles have made him a more mature bowler, and is now less susceptible to suffering the bi-polar highs and lows of elite cricket.
While entertained by his fireworks on Wednesday, Australian fans will ponder which Mitchell Johnson will make an appearance in the next innings, however, and are again likely to have their hearts in their mouths as they watch him steam in to bowl.