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Sabres' Jonas Johansson to make first NHL start after 'hiccups, road blocks'

Jonas Johansson could not have envisioned that he would realize his dream under such difficult circumstances. After two-plus seasons in the minors, the 24-year-old goalie replaced Carter Hutton with the Buffalo Sabres facing a four-goal deficit in the second period Tuesday night.

Two minutes later, Nathan MacKinnon and Mikko Rantanen, two top forwards in the National Hockey League, skated down the ice for an odd-man rush against Johansson. Rantanen, a 31-goal scorer last season, snapped the puck off the near post and over Johansson' shoulder.

First shot faced in the NHL, first goal against.

"Not the way you want the game to go ... " Johansson said with a smile. He didn't fold in the face of adversity, though. Johansson stopped each of the next 13 shots he faced, including a highlight-reel save in which he extended his left leg pad to stifle a backhanded attempt by Gabriel Landeskog.

Johansson's performance in the third period of a 6-1 loss to the Colorado Avalanche ensured he will start either Thursday against Detroit or Friday at Madison Square Garden against the Rangers. It will be the next chapter in a journey that has included injuries and doubt.

"It’s been like a roller coaster for me, ever since I got drafted," Johansson, a third-round draft choice in 2014, said following practice Wednesday. "This has always been the goal. It’s nice to get rewarded and to be here. I’m just taking it in and enjoying every moment."

Johansson's career arch could explain why he was not shaken by his welcome-to-the-NHL moment. An infection and illness kept him off the ice at the start of the 2014-15 season, and the presence of another talented goalie prospect caused his Swedish junior team, Brynas, to loan Johansson to Almtuna, which competes among the country's second-tier programs.

Johansson never competed in a IIHF World Junior Championship game, and he played only eight games in the Swedish Hockey League before signing an entry-level contract with Buffalo in 2017.

Johansson was assigned to the ECHL's Cincinnati Cyclones at the start of 2017-18, only to have his season shortened by a broken finger. He had a .909 save percentage and 3.13 goals-against average in 27 games with the Cyclones, and struggled in his seven games with the Amerks that season.

"One of the things we know and believe about Jonas is that he’s going to reach his potential, whatever that is – NHL starting goalie, NHL backup, American League starter," Sabres assistant general manager Randy Sexton said. "We don’t know what that is, but we believe he’s going to become as good as he’s capable of becoming for a few reasons. He’s incredibly committed in every way. He eats right, he looks after his body, he gets proper nutrition, he rests, he hydrates, he works out the right way. Every second of every day of Jonas’ life he is focused on learning to do the right things to improve."

Missing time didn't affect Johansson's psyche, either. He responded with a strong training camp in 2018, highlighted by his 13-save performance in a 4-1 preseason win at Columbus. Johansson proceeded to post a .908 save percentage in 27 games for Cincinnati and, more important, he had four wins with a .926 save percentage in five starts for the Amerks.

Last February, Johansson arrived in Buffalo for a routine scope of his right knee and expected to miss only a few weeks, providing him with ample time to return for Cincinnati's postseason. He discovered his meniscus needed to be repaired.

His season was over.

"The surgery is something that’s not really spoken about, nor should it be the focal point of the accomplishments he’s had, but I think what it does is it brings you back to the drive and determination that JJ’s had throughout his career," Seamus Kotyk, the Sabres' goaltending development coach, said. "There’s been a lot of hiccups, road blocks, from an injury standpoint. ... I’m just happy for him because I see what he puts into it. I see what he gives. When someone is rewarded for hard, honest work, you have to feel good for that person."

Johansson spent several weeks in Buffalo while recovering from the procedure and returned to Sweden to complete his physical therapy. Most of his summer workouts were spent on a stationary bike or rowing machine.

The first on-ice workout came in June during the Sabres' prospect development camp in LECOM Harborcenter. However, Johansson was not cleared to drop into a butterfly. Competing in those practices reminded him he was on track to return to full strength.

Training camp didn't go as planned, though. Johansson allowed three goals on 15 shots in a 5-4 preseason win over Pittsburgh at Penn State University. Johansson denied that his status as a pending restricted free agent caused him to place more pressure on himself in camp.

Kotyk, though, noticed a significant change in Johansson's performance once he was able to earn consistent playing time in Rochester.

"I think it was him just trying to figure out, the last year of his contract, I’m sure there was pressure he was putting on himself early," Kotyk said of Johansson's training camp. "Wanting to perform. It’s a new coaching staff at the NHL level. ... I knew he could show more.

"I think it’s just when he was assigned to Rochester it took time to find some starts and when he did I really believed he just put the pressures and expectations that he puts upon himself aside, and it looked like he just decided to play some hockey. I think the consistency was there that he needed in his game. I think the story is starting to write itself right now."

Johansson won 13 of his 16 starts in Rochester, posting a .925 save percentage and 2.19 goals against average. He was selected to represent the Amerks and Sabres in the AHL All-Star Classic, and established himself as the organization's No. 3 goalie.

Johansson was recalled by the Sabres on Jan. 29, one day after Linus Ullmark suffered a lower-body injury that is expected to keep him out of the lineup three-to-four weeks. It's uncertain how long Johansson will be in Buffalo, but he's on track to accomplish another feat that once seemed in doubt.

"There were times for sure when I was down in Cincinnati where you’re really wondering if it’s ever going to happen," Johansson said. "You have to keep on going."

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