WASHINGTON – Chad Johnson went through his usual pregame routine Wednesday, working out with the team in the morning skate then taking time at center ice for his own stretches and drills and mental preparation.
That’s how he rolls.
The goaltender that has emerged as the Sabres’ top option stays focused on his own game, whether he’s playing the NHL’s hottest team or looking over his shoulder at the return of the Sabres’ preseason anointed starter.
Johnson made his 21st start of the season against a Washington Capitals team that came into Wednesday night’s game at Verizon Center on an eight-game winning streak and with the best record in the Eastern Conference.
The Caps are the only team in the NHL with three players who have 30 points and a plus-10 rating – Alex Ovechkin (31 points, plus-16), Nicklas Backstrom (32 points, plus-11) and Evgeny Kuznetsov (31 points, plus-17). The team ranks fourth in the league in goals scored (108).
But Johnson doesn’t look at specifics of opponents. He notes tendencies in teams – the way they set up special teams or how they like to dump the puck into the offensive zone. Other than that, it’s about how he plays the puck, not the opponent.
“For me, it’s the same way. For my own sake, I can’t really change my game with different teams,” Johnson said. “I just try to prepare the same way with what I want to do, how I want to go into a game and where I want to be in certain positions. With any team, you watch power play, penalty kill and end zone stuff so I’m more prepared for different teams in that sense with what to expect with their game plan. But other than that, my game stays the same.”
His game remains the same, too, as Robin Lehner worked his way back to the ice in Buffalo on Tuesday. Lehner was injured in the first game of the season and the high ankle sprain has sidelined him ever since.
In his absence, the goaltending duties fell to Johnson and Linus Ullmark. Both have been steady, putting the Sabres in positions to win.
Johnson has been particularly impressive since November. In his 14 appearances the last two months, he went 7-3-2 with a .939 save percentage and a 1.81 goals against average.
With Lehner inching closer to returning, Johnson feels no outside competitive pressure to step up his game even more. That kind of competition for him would be counterproductive.
“I think, regardless of who’s here, whether it’s Robin or Linus or somebody else, you’re always competing with everybody,” Johnson said. “I’m competing with the 6-year-old kid that’s just starting to play hockey. You’re competing against everybody in the whole entire world at this level. For me and my mindset, from Day One I’ve always just tried to worry about myself. Competing with other people is good but you don’t always get the most out of yourself sometimes, but then other times you’re trying to do too much. Regardless of who is here, I just try to challenge myself and work on my game.
“I’m excited to have Robin back because he’s such a good guy, and I get along with him really well, and I think a piece of this team and the future. But again for me, the competition is always with myself. I think that focus for me is needing to worry about my own game. You can’t worry about what anyone else is doing.”
There really isn’t a big rivalry between the Sabres and Capitals, but play twice in three days and throw in a fight and a little bit of nastiness starts to boil underneath the surface.
“I kinda like it,” Sabres coach Dan Bylsma said. “You get some animosity between teams playing them for six periods back-to-back whether there’s anything physical in the game or not. It’s back to back. You get sick of seeing the same people back to back.”
“I think the second time when you play, if anything goes on, it tends to be probably a little more personal,” Washington coach Barry Trotz said. “If you play one game, you move on. When you play a team twice, depending on how the game is going, I think it becomes a little more personal.”
Of course, something did go on in the first game.
In Monday’s 2-0 Caps win in Buffalo, Sabres forward Nicolas Deslauriers put a big hit on Justin Williams. A stick caught Williams in the face as he was falling. No penalty was called and the Capitals took exception to it so Michael Latta went after Deslauriers. Deslauriers got the best of Latta in the fight, injuring Latta’s arm in the process.
“It can go both ways,” Deslauriers said before Wednesday’s game of the possibility of more retaliation. “It can be nothing or it could be something. For me, it’s just play the same game. Be physical. I’m ready to respond to anything.”