Chad Johnson has been a backup for most of his career, so being used sparingly is something he knows how to handle.
It’s tougher this time, however, because he’d gotten used to being in Buffalo’s net.
Johnson will start for just the second time in 10 games Monday when the Sabres visit Toronto.
Robin Lehner has earned the heavy workload with a .931 save percentage, but that doesn’t make it easier for Johnson. He appeared in nine of the opening 10 games and had a run of 11 of 16 while Lehner was out with an ankle sprain.
“It’s been tough playing probably once every two weeks, especially after getting in a lot of games, getting a rhythm and playing well,” Johnson said Sunday in First Niagara Center. “It’s tough not being able to keep things going or winning and having to sit after that. But it’s the situation.
“It’s definitely a different transition for me, but I’ve been through it. I just try to be a gamer. When I get my starts I make the most of it and try and get the win, just go from there.”
Johnson is 14-14-3 with a .917 save percentage and 2.45 goals-against average. He’s 4-2-1 in his last seven starts.
He’s seemingly getting a good chance at another win against a Maple Leafs team that sold heavily at the trade deadline. Toronto is winless in five straight, but Johnson watched a depleted Sabres team play opponents tough at the end of last season.
“The challenge is not taking that team for granted and underestimating them, not respecting them,” Johnson said. “Anyone can beat anyone. Even guys in the minor leagues, they come up and they have stuff to prove. Guys are playing for contracts on that team and playing for roster spots. It’s an evaluation time for that organization.
“I think the biggest thing is not taking them lightly because they can still play, they can compete.”
Guys still get excited playing in Toronto even during rebuilding years.
“It’s lights, camera, action in TO,” left wing Evander Kane said. “It’s a fun place to play no matter if they’re having a good season or not. Everybody’s watching. I know Buffalo and Toronto have a bit of a rivalry, so it’s always fun playing against those guys.”
Milan Michalek, acquired from Ottawa in the Dion Phaneuf trade, is healthy and will make his Maple Leafs debut. Former Sabres forward Brad Boyes is also returning from injury. Garret Sparks (3-3, .916, 2.42) will start in goal.
After taking the blame for Saturday’s 3-2 shootout loss to Minnesota, Kane went on the ice early Sunday for extra work. He was one of only 10 skaters to take part in the optional practice. He repeatedly fired pucks into the net after failing to connect on several glorious opportunities against the Wild.
“When you watch opportunities that you had or things you could have done better, it’s obvious on TV, but in the moment it’s a little bit different,” Kane said. “If I can get close to the top of the circle I feel confident I can beat the goalie clean. The top of the circle in, those are the areas that I worked on today, different angles, just kind of focusing and bearing down on putting the puck in the corners I want to put it in.”
Said coach Dan Bylsma: “I like them taking responsibility and accountability in their play. I saw and noticed Evander stepping on the ice early and getting extra work in on an area where he thinks he can be better.”
With 18 goals and 10 assists in 55 games, Kane hasn’t been as productive as he’d hoped. He wants to change that.
“There’s 16 games left, and I think we’re going to try to win every game,” Kane said. “Obviously, I’m going to try to score every game. For me it’s just finishing off the year strong and trying to win as many games as possible. Hopefully, have some fun down the stretch here with the guys.”
Goalie Michael Leighton, who spent the 2005-06 season in the Sabres’ organization, made history over the weekend. Leighton recorded his 46th shutout Saturday to set the career record in the American Hockey League. The previous mark of 45 had been held for nearly 59 years by Johnny Bower.
Leighton, who plays for the Rockford IceHogs, had two shutouts in 40 appearances with Rochester a decade ago. He is 27-6-8 this season, his 15th as a professional. He also holds the AHL record for most saves in a playoff game, stopping 98 shots during a five-overtime loss with Albany in 2008.