Johnson turns opportunist

Senior Justin Johnson stopped 39 of 40 shots Saturday in his first action in months.

Ben Goessling

MANKATO, Minn. – Minnesota men’s hockey coach Don Lucia decided after Friday’s 9-6 win over Minnesota State-Mankato that it was time to give starting goaltender Kellen Briggs a break for the first time in 22 games.

Problem was, backup goalie Justin Johnson’s confidence had been on vacation for the same span.

Johnson, the much-maligned netminder whose four-year career at Minnesota includes two failed chances to win the starting job, last played in the Frontier Classic championship game Oct. 16.

Minnesota was upset 3-2 by Alaska-Anchorage despite outshooting the Seawolves 38-19. Since then, Lucia has discussed starting Johnson several times, only to go with Briggs at game time.

So when Lucia decided to give the senior a start against the Mavericks on Saturday, the first thing Johnson did was search for his confidence.

“I went home and watched a bunch of old tapes to remind myself I could still play this game,” he said.

Johnson watched perhaps his two biggest moments with the Gophers – his first game, in which he became the first Minnesota goalie in six seasons to record a shutout in his debut, and the 2003 WCHA Final Five championship game, in which he stepped in for an injured Travis Weber and stopped 36 of 38 shots against Colorado College.

And when it came time to play Saturday, Johnson responded with another one for the video file, stopping a career-high 39 shots in a 2-1 win over the Mavericks.

“I felt it was important to give Kellen a break,” Lucia said. “Johnson has won here before, and he was outstanding tonight. In my mind, he was the player of the game.”

The senior stopped 14 shots in the third period, denying the Mavericks during a 5-on-3 situation with just more than seven minutes left in the game and turning away several golden opportunities for Mankato with 3 1/2 minutes left.

“To have 40 chances and only one goal is extremely frustrating,” Mavericks coach Troy Jutting said. “Sometimes, kids like that are chomping at the bit to get a chance. He did a hell of a job.”

Briggs, like most of the team, has been battling cold symptoms all week and was probably long overdue for a night off.

But Johnson saw the game as a chance for more than that. While most backups would be excited to take the ice for the first time in three months, Johnson’s anticipation was tempered by the realization that if he did not play well, he might never see the ice again.

“You’re happy for your teammates after a win, but you haven’t fully experienced it,” he said. “I’m looking at the end of my senior year here, and this could have been my last game. I just want to make sure coach knows that I’m here.”

But his successful audition coincided with a game the Gophers badly needed to stoke their WCHA title chances, and it’s safe to assume Johnson has not seen his last action in a Minnesota uniform.

“I’m happy for him, because nobody works harder,” Lucia said. “He’s a senior, and we expect that of him. He gave us the game we had to have.”