BOSTON – There were plenty of chuckles Saturday morning when a crowd of reporters circled one locker in the Buffalo Sabres’ dressing room after the morning skate to discuss a return back to TD Garden.
Just not the guy you would have assumed.
On the day Jack Eichel made his NHL debut in the building, goaltender Chad Johnson was back in town and making a third straight start for the Sabres for the first time since October. Johnson, who split two starts here for the New York Islanders last season after serving as a stellar backup for the Bruins during the 2013-14 season, met current Boston backup Jonas Gustavsson.
The Bruins were saving starter Tuukka Rask for Sunday’s showdown in Ottawa. Johnson actually entered Saturday with a better goals-against average than the Boston starter (2.31 to 2.40) and an identical .918 save percentage. While backing up Rask here two years ago, Johnson went 17-4-3 with a 2.10 GAA and .925 save percentage.
“There’s a lot of good memories and I met a lot of good people here in the city, the organization, the coaching staff, the players,” Johnson said. “They were all really good to me. Just a lot of good memories. I always love playing in this arena. The fans are awesome.”
Johnson entered Saturday’s game with a 6-3-2 record since Nov. 1 and glossy statistics since that date of a 1.71 GAA and .942 save percentage, clearly wresting away the top slot from rookie Linus Ullmark.
Johnson’s lone season here served as a pretty good accelerator for his career. He signed as a free agent in July, 2013 after spending four years mostly in the AHL and appearing in a combined 10 games for the New York Rangers and Phoenix Coyotes.
But he thrived behind a Boston team coming off a Stanley Cup final appearance against Chicago, developing the confidence that carried him to a year with the New York Islanders and the starter’s role in Buffalo in the wake of Robin Lehner’s injury.
“With the Bruins I wanted to get in the door, prove I could be a backup and build off that,” he said. “I’ve definitely improved from a goaltending standpoint and matured. I feel better. This was a great experience with the Bruins and I learned a lot here. The thing I always remember was when the team is playing well, they won games. And even when the team wasn’t playing well, they still found a way to win hockey games.”
Johnson said Boston coach Claude Julien knew how to tinker with his system even when his team wasn’t playing that well, as a way to maximize their chances.
“They’re always in games,” Johnson said. “That comes with experience of guys who are there who have won. It was definitely a great experience to be around an atmosphere like that. Guys were upset sometimes when they weren’t playing well even if they won a game. That came down to team defense, working together and realizing what it takes to win. It’s something I’ll always keep with me.”
Winger Matt Moulson, who entered the contest without a goal for 22 games, was working in and out of the fourth line in the morning skate but did dress for the game. Coach Dan Bylsma said Marcus Foligno, who has missed the last three games with an upper-body injury, was ready to go but Foligno stayed late for some extra work and Moulson played.
Asked if Moulson might benefit from a trip to the press box as a healthy scratch, Bylsma seemed to issue him a warning.
“Matt needs to get back to playing the way he can,” Bylsma said. “It’s a big part of our team for him to be able to do that. He can add in that area. Right now he’s off his game in that regard. ... We need him to get back to that level for us to be successful.”
Prior to the game, Sabres center Jack Eichel declined comment when asked by a Boston reporter about the gambling probe that went public at Boston University this week surrounding the hockey team. It resulted in the suspension for the season of former Eichel teammate Nick Roberto; the school told the Buffalo News that Eichel is currently not part of the investigation.
“All of those guys are my family,” Eichel said. “I don’t feel it’s really right for me to address the situation.”
Johan Larsson played his 100th career NHL game, all but one of which have come with the Sabres since he was acquired from Minnesota in the 2013 trade for Buffalo captain Jason Pominville. Carlo Colaiacovo remained a healthy scratch on defense for the seventh straight game.