Chad Johnson has been given the crease and had it taken away from him a lot this season. Back and forth he’s boomeranged, from backup goalie to starter all year. He’s been the clear No. 1 guy, the backup to rookie Linus Ullmark, the No. 1 over Ullmark and now the backup to Robin Lehner.
Friday night in First Niagara Center, the Buffalo Sabres needed Johnson to move back into the role as the clear starter. He responded well, making 32 saves in a 3-1 win over the Ottawa Senators.
Lehner’s sprained ankle, initially injured on opening night, has been barking of late and the Sabres are hopeful he can return in a few days. Until he does, Johnson is the man again. He is scheduled to start again Saturday night in Air Canada Centre against Toronto.
“It’s about playing hockey games and trying to get wins,” he said. “Play well and help the team, if it’s a lot of games or a few games. It doesn’t really change my mindset. Robin is not here today so we’ll just go from there.”
Johnson won his fifth straight decision to improve his record to 17-14-3. The 17 wins equal the most by a Buffalo goalie over the last four years (Ryan Miller won 17 in the 2013 lockout season), and also equal Johnson’s career high set two years ago with Boston.
“Winning is fun,” said Johnson. “You can play a good game and lose and it’s not satisfying. Being able to play well and get results is fun to be a part of.”
Lehner has jammed the ankle into a goalpost a couple of times of late, most recently in Wednesday’s overtime loss to Montreal here. After Friday morning’s optional pregame skate, coach Dan Bylsma said Lehner is not in danger of being shut down for the rest of the season.
“That’s not the thought process right now,” Bylsma said. “The high ankle sprain is one you deal with for a long time. I don’t think at any one point in time he hasn’t been dealing with it since he’s come back. ... We’re just going to give it a few days of rest.”
There’s no worries about using Johnson. After plenty of struggles in October, he posted a 1.12 GAA and .954 save percentage in November. He had a 44-save shutout in December against Anaheim, setting a franchise record for most saves in a blanking.
Johnson has been red-hot again in March – with a stat line of 3-0/1.63/.944. “There’s definitely a different level that I’ve gotten to mentally with the approach to the game,” he said. “I’ve definitely grown a lot this year with the maturity level and dealing with playing a lot and the pressures connected to that.
“I’ve gotten a good opportunity this year and I thought I’ve played well and consistent. It’s changed here at times and I just control what I can control. When I do play, play well regardless if it’s in a starting role or backup role.”
Johnson was consistent in his game Friday, making 11 saves in each of the first two periods and 10 more in the third. His best stop came on a Bobby Ryan breakaway midway through the second, just before Zach Bogosian scored Buffalo’s third goal.
“He came down with a lot of speed there and I tried to stay with him,” Johnson said. “A couple years ago he had one on me where he faked 5-hole and tried to go around me so I stayed with him. He tried for 5-hole there.”
Bylsma said he’s come to appreciate how easy Johnson is making a difficult role look.
“His strength is demeanor, his presence in the net, his calmness in the net,” Bylsma said. “He was every bit of that tonight for us. There were some saves he had to make that were good saves but he made them real compact, real solid. He gives you that confidence.”