CALGARY, Alberta – There were two major items surrounding Buffalo Sabres goaltender Chad Johnson prior to Thursday’s game against the Calgary Flames.
The opener was that it was Johnson’s first career game against his hometown team and there were plenty of friends and family in Scotiabank Saddledome to watch him play. The second was that it was his fifth start in Buffalo’s last seven games, further affirmation he has wrested away the role as the team’s No. 1 goaltender from rookie Linus Ullmark.
Johnson, 29, was born in Saskatoon but moved to Calgary when he was 1 and grew up as a Flames fan. He was supposed to start here two years ago with Boston but came down with the flu in Toronto during a trip two days prior to the game and didn’t play.
Since the Sabres have been here since Tuesday, it’s been quite a homecoming for Johnson.
“It’s a weird situation coming back and having two days at home,” Johnson said. “I don’t know who made the schedule there but it helped me out quite a bit. It’s nice to see the family and friends and it’s obviously business as usual today.”
Johnson entered the game with a 7-8-1 record on the season but was 3-1 in his last four starts. Ullmark, meanwhile, is 0-4-2 in his last six decisions and has given up 12 goals in his last three starts.
Johnson has been stellar for more than a month. He entered Thursday’s game 4-2-1 since Nov. 1 with a 1.70 goals against average and .937 save percentage.
“It’s all about results but I felt good at the start of the year and we were all growing together as a group, especially defensively,” Johnson said. “It takes time with a new system. I felt good at the beginning but lately I’ve been getting results.”
“Chad’s at his best when he’s been calm and quiet in net,” said coach Dan Bylsma. “That’s what he’s been. Earlier in the season, we saw some spectacular saves from Chad. I don’t think he’s had to make many spectacular saves with how solid he’s played, how controlled he’s played. He’s given us a chance to win.”
Johnson, of course, was slated to be Buffalo’s backup this season but was quickly thrust into a much larger role when Robin Lehner went down with a high ankle sprain in the second period of the Sabres’ season opener.
Thursday marked nine weeks since Lehner’s injury, which the Sabres initially said would keep him out for 6-10 weeks. There has been no recent update on Lehner’s progress as he has yet to return to practice with the team.
Johnson struggled early in the season by giving up big rebounds or directing pucks back into the slot. That area of his game seems to have dramatically improved, although Johnson said that’s a product of new players learning each other’s roles.
“I didn’t feel my rebound control was that bad at the start of the year but as a group we’re maybe more aware of where pucks are going,” Johnson said. “The camaraderie is a lot better so guys know where I’m putting pucks. When you’re losing games, it’s easy to find reasons to focus on but I felt good all year.”
“We talked about some of the goals even we he was playing pretty well,” Bylsma said. “We had some pucks around that stayed alive in the feet on the power play and rebound situations. That’s how they scored. But now he’s been eating pucks up, gobbled pucks up. He’s been real solid in his play.”
Sabres defenseman Jake McCabe returned to the lineup after a one-game hiatus in the press box and Carlo Colaiacovo sat out as a healthy scratch for the first time in 10 games; he has a minus-4 rating over his last four. Cal O’Reilly was also scratched, meaning Ryan’s older brother did not play on any of the three games on the trip.
Calgary reporters did the obligatory interview with Jack Eichel after practice on Wednesday that’s been done in virtually every city on the road this season. But Thursday’s Calgary Sun had a unique twist on their story with the headline “Eichey likes it” in a pun based on the “Mikey likes it” Life cereal commercials of the 1970s.
Eichel was talking about former Boston University teammate and Flames prospect Brandon Hickey, who is heading to Team Canada’s camp for the World Junior Championships next week.
The Sabres have announced they will host their third annual Sabres UnPucked event on Jan. 23, from 7-10:30 p.m. at (716) Food and Sport. Tickets are $100 and can by purchased by season ticket-holders in a special presale on Friday. Sales open to the public Monday; tickets can be purchased at Sabres.com or by calling Nick Fearby at 855-4452.
Tickets include access to an evening of music with Sabres players and a performance by Kelsea Ballerini, a recording artist from Pegula-owned Black River Entertainment group. Sabres defenseman Zach Bogosian will take over the music duties as guest DJ following Ballerini’s performance. The ticket also includes food, an open bar, parking and a chance to participate in live and silent auctions of sports and entertainment experiences and memorabilia.