On Wednesday morning, in the hubbub of game day in the Calgary Flames’ dressing room, there was a mad scramble to track down the latest Dougie Hamilton trade rumours, all dismissed out of hand by Calgary Flames’ general manager Brad Treliving. Johnny Gaudreau, the injured forward, was around too, skating for the first time since breaking his finger, and inching closer to a return.
Amid all the hustle and bustle, noise and confusion, goaltender Chad Johnson was off in one corner holding court, exhibiting the same aura of calm and confidence that he’s demonstrated on the ice.
If Johnson didn’t exactly ride to the rescue to salvage the Flames’ season, it was only because he’d been here right from the start, mostly watching from the bench behind Brian Elliott.
The Flames’ goaltending received a complete makeover in the summer after the team finished with the worst defensive record in the league last season. When Elliott, the opening-night starter, couldn’t quite get it going, coach Glen Gulutzan turned to Johnson just before last week’s season-high six-game trip and he responded with a series of excellent performances.
Up until the Philadelphia Flyers put an end to his winning ways last Sunday, Johnson had won five of his six previous appearances, and posted eye-popping numbers in that span (a 1.17 GA, a .958 save percentage, plus two shutouts). Overall, he is 7-4-1 on a team that had a 10-13-2 record heading into Wednesday night’s game against the visiting Toronto Maple Leafs.
Upon further review, Johnson’s strong play probably shouldn’t have come as that much of a surprise. Last year, he emerged as the Buffalo Sabres’ de facto starter following an early season injury to Robin Lehner and won 22 games in 45 appearances for a team that had finished dead last in the league the previous year. By contrast, Elliott won 23 games in 42 appearances for a notoriously stingy St. Louis Blues team.
Johnson opted to sign with the Flames, largely because of opportunity (and knowing Lehner was almost certainly going to gobble up the lion’s share of the starts this year, provided he stayed healthy).
That Johnson is originally from Calgary – he was born here in June of 1986, days after the Flames lost the Stanley Cup final to the Montreal Canadiens – factored into the decision, but it wasn’t the primary reason he came home to play.
At 30, he is getting his first real chance to be a No. 1.
“It’s all about who likes you, who sees you, the contract, the right fit – there’s so much that goes into it besides playing well,” Johnson said. “Some guys get it handed to them, others don’t. But it’s like life – you’ve just got to grind it out and not worry and do your thing.”
There have been a lot of goaltenders in the recent past whose careers have taken off after a decade of apprenticeship – from former Vézina Trophy winners Dominik Hasek and Tim Thomas to established credible starters such as Craig Anderson and Devan Dubnyk.
Sometimes, you just need to be in the right place at the right time. For Johnson, it always seemed that wherever he was, someone got there before him – a Tuukka Rask, a Henrik Lundqvist or a Mike Smith.
“No matter what you do, those are your go-to guys,” Johnson said. “You’re paying them the money and money talks. And they’re great goalies. I was lucky to be behind them, and I understood that. I knew I just had to improve every year and wait for the opportunity.”
Johnson is the first Calgary-born goaltender to play for the Flames since Mike Vernon, who won the Stanley Cup for them in 1989 and then returned to finish out his career in Calgary in 2002. That was also Johnson’s last year in Calgary – he played for the Calgary Buffaloes of the Alberta midget hockey league in 2002-03 before spending the next four years at the University of Alaska.
Mostly, Johnson’s formative years overlapped with the beginnings of the Miikka Kiprusoff era, the last time the Flames consistently received elite-level goaltending.
“I mean, I was a Flames fan,” Johnson said. “Growings up in Calgary, it’s your home team and there was always a lot of focus on the goalies. Mike Vernon, he was a legend around here and when you win the Stanley Cup, rightfully so. Then Kipper, the run he had, and what he accomplished.
“It’s exciting to be in this locker room and be a part of the team you grew up with and watched and to be one of the goalies that you sort of admired growing up. That’s one of the reasons I signed here. I wanted that challenge – and the pressure that comes with it, of being in your hometown.”Report Typo/Error