BOSTON — It’s not easy to be a backup anything. Many times, you sit idly while someone else occupies the position you wish to hold. When you finally get your chance, everything you do is scrutinized even more because the sample size is so small.
All of that applies to being a backup goaltender in the NHL, and it’s even more prevalent when you’re the backup for the Boston Bruins and are playing understudy to someone like Tuukka Rask. Boston backup Chad Johnson knows that, so he’s obviously doing all he can to take advantage of any chances he gets.
He got a chance — his fourth of the season — Saturday afternoon at TD Garden, and he didn’t disappoint. The backup goalie allowed just two goals, as the Bruins would eventually win 3-2. It wasn’t a sparkling effort or anything like that, but it was effective and it was a win. That’s all you can really ask out of your backup, and Johnson has continued to fill the role well. With Saturday’s win, he’s now 3-1-0 on the season, giving the Bruins a chance to win in all four starts.
“We’ve kind of grinded it out here,” Johnson said “It’s always nice to get wins. It’s my job to step in there and get two points, and it’s nice to get rewarded like that.”
Johnson’s job was made even more difficult in a way Saturday against Carolina. Johnson made a save on a Jeff Skinner wrist shot at 9:13 of the first. And then he waited. And waited. And waited.
One of the league’s anemic offenses, the Hurricanes went nearly 23 minutes in the first and second period without a shot on goal. In theory, that’s not the worst thing in the world for a goalie. If there are no shots, there are no goals. Yet, it can work against you as well, especially when you’re a backup who can go days or weeks without game action.
“It’s just knowing that the next shot is very important,” Johnson said. “Situation like that, you get a bad bounce or they’re on a breakaway or a deflection comes on me. I know you have to be ready; it doesn’t matter if you have 20 shots a period or two, you have to be ready.”
It’s a situation where mental sharpness and physical sharpness must coincide and work simultaneously. The goalie can’t let his mind wonder, and he can’t stiffen up. If one or both happen, that one shot — assuming it ever comes — could be on its way to the back of the net.
“You try and follow the play a little bit more with your eyes,” Johnson said, while also admitting he did some extra skating during breaks in play to keep loose. “You just try to focus on the play. When it is in the zone, you try to follow it. You just try not to think about not having shots for 10 minutes. When you think about it, it can sort of put you at a disadvantage.”
The Hurricanes actually tested Johnson much more in the third period. After facing just 10 shots in the first and second periods combined, Carolina put 14 shots on Johnson in the third. He stopped all but one of them, allowing a goal to Patrick Dwyer who beat the goalie on a 2-on-nobody-but-the-goalie breakaway that would have been asking a lot for any goaltender to stop. His 22-save effort set the table for David Krejci to eventually score the game-winning goal in overtime.
Unsurprisingly, Johnson’s work Saturday and for the entire season has been appreciated by head coach Claude Julien, as Julien is the one who has to try and balance the workload of his goaltenders.
“That’s tough for any goalie,” Julien said of the lack of shots in the middle of Saturday’s game. “I think when you sit in there and halfway through the game you’ve faced seven, 10 shots, that’s not easy. At the end of the day, you look and he’s 3-1. That’s what you want from your second goaltender is that he can go in there and allow you to win some games. So far he’s done a pretty good job despite the fact that he’s had some long breaks between those games.”
Now, it’s back to the waiting game for Johnson, which is the way of life for a backup, a job he’s certainly done well enough in his young Bruins career.