ST. PAUL, Minn. – This was no ordinary preseason opener for Chad Johnson. The veteran goaltender has been a part of the Buffalo Sabres’ organization for more than six months but Monday’s exhibition against the Minnesota Wild was his first chance to play in a game for the Blue & Gold.
Johnson, acquired from the New York Islanders at the trade deadline for Michal Neuvirth, took a shot to the ankle during the morning skate of a game in March in Ottawa and was scratched from his scheduled start that night. As it turned out, he never made it back into the lineup the rest of the season.
The Sabres are counting on Johnson to be a quality veteran backup to Robin Lehner and he knows his work in September is more important than it might be for others on the team just tuning up for the season.
“It’s very important, absolutely,” Johnson said in XCel Energy Center. “For me, it’s about getting back in that routine, that right mindset and focusing on what I want to accomplish and where my focus has to be to have success. It’s been a long time but I’ve been looking forward to it.”
Johnson made 15 saves on 17 shots in Monday’s game before being relieved by Nathan Lieuwen after two periods. His positioning and rebound control were strong
Johnson had mostly mediocre numbers last year for the New York Islanders (8-8-1, 3.08 goals-against average, .889 save percentage). But the Sabres feel he can be a reliable alternative to Lehner, given his stellar 2013-14 campaign backing up Tuukka Rask in Boston (17-4-3, 2.10, .925).
The Bruins, of course, have a stout defense that benefits their netminders, but Johnson’s place on the stat sheet probably falls somewhere between his numbers on Long Island and those from Boston.
“I’m just coming in and trying to take care of what I can,” Johnson said. “If I play 30 games 40, 60, whatever it is, that’s to be determined with my play. They bring in a great goalie like Robin Lehner who has played well in the past. We’re trying to push each other and that will help the team be better.”
Coach Dan Bylsma admitted Johnson is “a bit of an unknown.” But the Sabres’ new man behind the bench has been happy what he saw during the team’s three days of scrimmages.
“He’s a real steady, real compact guy who plays a solid position and that’s what I expect from him,” Bylsma said. “It’s a great opportunity and he’s got to get in the net and prove he can play games for us.”
Bylsma especially liked a breakaway save Johnson made on Ryan O’Reilly in Friday’s scrimmage.
“I feel I’m calm, composed,” Johnson said. “I pride myself on being in position for shots, getting strong pushes through the crease and being patient. When I’m playing my best, I make things look easier because I’m in position and have good rebound control.I’m not a guy who needs to sprawl around and make dramatic saves. I’m always in control. That’s how I like to play.”
The Sabres announced their lone live television broadcast of the preseason on MSG will be the Oct. 2 finale against Columbus in First Niagara Center.
The games against Toronto on Sept. 25 in the Air Canada Centre and Sept. 29 in Buffalo will be showed on a tape-delayed basis twice each on the days after the games on NHL Network. The September 25 game will air on September 26 at 8 a.m. and 1 p.m., and the September 29 game will be shown on September 30 at 9 a.m. and 3 p.m.
All seven games will be on WGR Radio, with either Dan Dunleavy or MSG intermission host Brian Duff handling the play-by-play.
USA Hockey will hold a news conference in the FNC Tuesday afternoon to discuss Thursday night’s CCM/USA Hockey All-American Prospects Game in the arena as well as Buffalo’s bid for the 2018 World Junior Championships. The speakers will include Sabres and Bills president Russ Brandon and Sabres center Jack Eichel, the MVP of last year’s All-American Prospects Game.
USA Hockey staff arrived in Buffalo Monday for their official site visit to determine the 2018 host. Buffalo was named as a finalist earlier this month along with Pittsburgh and St. Louis and would host secondary games of the tournament in HarborCenter.
The Sabres return to practice in the arena Tuesday with two sessions. The first runs from 9:30-11 a.m., with the second going from 1130 - 1 p.m. The morning skate for Wednesday’s preseason home opener against Ottawa is at 10:30 a.m. and the players not playing in the game will practice from 11:30-2 p.m. All of those sessions are free and open to the public.
Because of the Prospects Game, Thursday’s camp practices shift to HarborCenter. They will run from 8:30-11:30 a.m.