Johnson ready to stand and deliver

by Adam Fink

The thought resonated through Justin Johnson’s mind.

After not playing in 16 games from mid-November to mid-January, Minnesota’s men’s hockey goaltender wondered if he was respected by his teammates.

But Johnson was put at ease after he backstopped the Gophers 3-2 upset of top-ranked Colorado College 3-2 on Feb. 8.

The game marked the second straight weekend in which the sophomore competed and the first where he was a key reason for the victory.

“I wasn’t sure where I stood with my teammates,” Johnson said. “I didn’t know where I fit in. That game really was the difference.

“I am comfortable with my role right now.”

Including last Saturday’s win versus Wisconsin, Johnson is 3-0 in as many starts and has only allowed four goals in the same span.

For the season, Johnson has played in nine games (6-1-2) and holds a .885 saves percentage.

Heading into this weekend’s series at Minnesota-Duluth, Johnson has re-established himself as a solid contributor to the Gophers (17-7-7, 12-5-5 WCHA). He has shown the team can succeed with him between the pipes.

“The only difference with me right now is I have the opportunity to play,” Johnson said.

That is all Johnson could ask for during a two-month stretch. He showed up to practice, talked to goaltending coach (and former Hobey Baker Award winner) Robb Stauber and worked hard to prove himself.

And he also remembered his experiences from his days with the Lincoln Stars of the USHL, when he faced a similar situation.

While at Lincoln, the Ham Lake, Minn. native found his playing time limited. Johnson kept trying to improve facets of his game and soon found himself the everyday starter.

Entering this year, Johnson found himself once again in a battle for playing time with fellow sophomore Travis Weber.

While Weber has started to establish himself as the No. 1 goalie, coach Don Lucia stressed the importance of two capable goaltenders.

“He pushes me,” Weber said. “I root for him out there just as he roots for me. He works so hard that it’s nice he gets rewarded.”

Neither Johnson, Weber (23 games played this season) nor coach Don Lucia know how the rest of the season will shape up for the second-year students.

Johnson’s playing time could again be limited, but the 22-year-old – who occasionally hears the nickname “Grandpa” – is no longer frustrated.

Johnson knows at some point he might need to start looking toward next season and watch Weber, one of his best friends on the team, shoulder the load.

But until, if ever, that moment arrives, Johnson will continue to improve his game.

Susceptible to committing too early, Johnson held his position well and didn’t allow Wisconsin any solid looks on second attempts during Saturday’s 8-1 Gophers romp.

“Anytime you are out of the lineup and return, it will boost your confidence,” alternate captain Paul Martin said. “(Justin) works hard and has played well with his opportunity.”

Johnson’s recent three-game stretch offers an additional benefit to Minnesota: Lucia has a reliable goaltender in the wings.

“That was what we were thinking when we brought them in,” Lucia said. “They drive each other. This team counts on Justin.”

However, sometimes it takes a breakthrough game to realize one’s worth.

ï Sophomore Jerrid Reinholz won’t get to face his former team after all. The transfer from Minnesota-Duluth injured his shoulder in practice earlier in the week and will not play this weekend.

The injury is only expected to keep Reinholz out of action for the two-game series in Duluth.

Adam Fink covers men’s hockey and welcomes comments at [email protected]