Lost chances behind him, weekend tilt with St. Cloud State begins Johnson’s chance to make it right

With Kellen Briggs out indefinitely, goalie Justin Johnson will take over as the No. 1.

Ben Goessling

At least Justin Johnson has his chance.

It came in the least rewarding and most bizarre way, and it came, of course, with the doubt the Minnesota men’s hockey goaltender has faced for four years.

But here Johnson is, closing out his senior year as the Gophers’ No. 1 goaltender, taking his last, best shot to correct an uneven career.

When 12th-ranked Minnesota announced Wednesday that goalie Kellen Briggs could miss a month with an unspecified hand injury, Johnson assumed the starting role beginning this weekend with a home-and-home series against St. Cloud State.

No. 12 Minnesota has laid on Johnson’s shoulders the task of anchoring a season teetering on the edge of disaster and, much more than his past cameos, the Gophers’ fortunes hang on his play.

Which is all he ever asked for.

“When I came here, I wanted to be a starter,” he said. “It’s exciting to know I’ll be playing on senior night at Mariucci (Arena on Friday). And then we’ll deal with it as it comes.”

Johnson has the confidence of coach Don Lucia, who has been waiting all year for his seniors to produce and might finally see one step forward.

“It’s nice to know we have a senior that’s played in pressure games before. That’s what you want,” Lucia said. “He’s ready, and now we need him.”

Johnson was in an almost identical situation two years ago, when starting goalie Travis Weber went down before the WCHA Final Five with a broken hand.

Johnson stopped 50 of 54 shots in the tournament, earning all-tournament honors after making 36 saves in a championship game win over Colorado College.

But this time, he might have to be even better.

The 2002-03 Gophers were in the midst of a season-ending 10-0-1 run that ultimately resulted in the team’s second consecutive national championship.

The current Minnesota squad is 5-8-1 during the last two months, including a 0-3-1 record in home series against lowly Michigan Tech and Alaska-Anchorage.

Johnson did contribute to one of those wins, making a career-high 39 saves in a 2-1 victory over Minnesota State-Mankato on Jan. 15.

Since then, he is 0-1-1 in four games, having been relieved by Briggs in two of them. On Saturday, Johnson gave up five goals on 17 shots against the U.S. National Under-18 Team.

Inconsistency, however, has defined Johnson’s career.

He recorded a shutout in his first career start and entered his sophomore season at the top of the Gophers’ depth chart.

But Johnson missed two chances to nail down the starting job, backing up Weber his sophomore year and Briggs last season.

“J.J. is very capable of playing good hockey, there’s no two ways about it,” goaltending coach Robb Stauber said. “The thing is – he’s never gotten on a roll. But now he has a chance to go out and do it.”

For Johnson, who is the first to admit he has struggled, the chance has come to finish a shaky symphony with a perfect finale.

It’s an opportunity he said he never thought he would see, and now that it’s here, he’s not about to take it lightly.

“The way it happened is ironic,” he said. “But it’s a great feeling to know the opportunity is there to go out on top.”

Howe to play Saturday

Lucia said Mike Howe, who has been out for four weeks with an undisclosed medical condition, will likely be in the lineup Saturday at St. Cloud State.