The Bruins were up 2-0 with five minutes left at the Pepsi Center, and the Colorado Avalanche had just pulled goaltender Semyon Varlamov.
The Avalanche are already a young, fast team. Defensively, they are difficult to contend with under normal circumstances. Facing them with an extra attacker for five minutes at the end of a game — and, on top that, dealing with the all-important altitude adjustment — was a challenge, to say the least.
Then, there was the added pressure of the fact that the Bruins were in the midst of a 10-game winning streak and were five minutes away from extending it to 11.
“It was tough with the altitude — I definitely felt it the practice before and pregame and then into the game, too, especially later in the game,” Johnson said. “There’s five minutes left so you feel like you’re losing your breath a lot.”
Dealing with pressure is just part of Johnson’s job description this season, and by all indications, it’s no sweat.
“It was fun to be out there and know it’s a big game for myself, for the team, sort of with the streak and everything else,” Johnson said. “So it was exciting and it was just nice to get the two points, especially in that arena.”
Boston got that 11th straight win in Denver, in a situation where many anticipated starter Tuukka Rask would be between the pipes. But Bruins Head Coach Claude Julien showed his confidence in Johnson.
Julien has admitted he didn’t know much about Johnson before the goalie became a Bruin. It took Johnson a few games to get comfortable in the Bruins’ system – he started off 1-1, allowing five goals in total to the Sabres and the Islanders – but since then, it’s been a different story.
“Basically, from our people that scouted him and all that stuff, that’s how I got most of my information on Chad,” Julien said. “I think when you look at the beginning of the year, his first two games were a little rocky, but at the same time I didn’t think we had a great opportunity in those preseason games to give him a good chance to get a feel for our game."
"So again, it was a little tough for him, but everybody sees what he’s done so far.”
This season has been a season of transition for Johnson. Not only has it marked his first full season in the NHL, but it has also marked the first time he has officially served as a backup goaltender.
All of the challenges that come with that — the inconsistent schedule, the necessity of remaining ready to play at the drop of a hat, even if it means playing for the first time in weeks — are challenges Johnson has embraced.
In that sense, he’s just like everyone else wearing Black & Gold: it’s all about doing whatever it takes, whatever that might be, to help this team win.
“I wanted to come in here and just be a part of the team,” Johnson said. “I think for myself, knowing the group of guys and what this team can accomplish — which, you know, means going as far as we can in the playoffs, having a good opportunity to win — I think that, for me, was the most important this year."
"Maybe if you’re on different teams, your goals are a little different coming in, but for myself, I just wanted to come in and embrace being a backup.”
“Coming here, just trying to help the team win and try to help them get to the Finals there and all the way to the very end. You don’t have that many opportunities to be a part of a team like this. So for myself, I just wanted to embrace it.”
Johnson was drafted by the Penguins 125th overall in 2006, and after four years at the University of Alaska — where he finished his career as a Hobey Baker finalist and as the 2008-09 Central Collegiate Hockey Association Player of the Year — his rights were traded from Pittsburgh to New York. After compiling a 24-18-2 record with a 2.54 goals-against average and a .911 save percentage in his first year in the AHL, he was called up to the Rangers for five starts.
Johnson spent the bulk of the next three seasons in the AHL, first with Hartford, then with the Portland Pirates after signing a one-year, two-way deal with Phoenix as a free agent.
There, he showed one of the first glimpses of what he could do under pressure: He was recalled in January 2013 to replace the injured Mike Smith, and in his first NHL start since 2010, he posted a 21-save shutout.
Johnson emerged from this year’s training camp as Tuukka Rask’s backup, going 16-3-1 overall with a 2.04 GAA and a .925 save percentage thus far. He has proven time and again that he is perfectly accustomed to giving the maximum effort whenever he’s called upon, and of late, his maximum effort has been pretty effective.
“Obviously, to be in front of these guys with such good systems, and a good D corps, and offensive players that want to play defense too, you know, it helps me out a lot,” he said. “So it's fun to play in front of our team when we're so committed defensively and we're out there to win and we expect to win.”
For Johnson, having the opportunity to be a Bruin — even as a backup — was one he was eager to embrace, and his new teammates were just as eager to bring him into the fold.
“Right away, obviously, I knew what kind of team they were, playing against them and watching them on TV and being a fan,” he said. “You know what style of play they have. They compete hard. But I think the feeling [of belonging] happened right away — they really embraced me, the way I play. Obviously there’s a little bit of adjustment, just learning about me, my style, the way I play the puck, all those little things.”
After the fifth or sixth game, Johnson saw everybody settling in, getting comfortable with each other, and that transition happened for him as well.
"Just getting comfortable with the city, new living, new surroundings, new everything, new locker rooms. I think for myself, probably after maybe a month or two months, I definitely settled in," he said.
Recently, Johnson hasn’t simply served as a stopgap in between Rask’s starts. The Bruins had eight back-to-backs on the docket in the final stretch of the season, and given that Rask played through the final day of the Olympics in Sochi, it was implicit that Johnson’s workload was going to increase after the Olympic hiatus.
Johnson has given Boston exactly what it needed during that stretch: consistency and reliability. During the Bruins’ 13-game winning streak, he started five games, allowing just six goals and posting a shutout.
“It’s exciting to see what this team can do when we just focus on what’s at hand and not the streak, not anything else — just the game that we have to worry about in the moment, I guess,” he said.
“It’s exciting. It was fun to be on a streak like that — I think it’s probably one of the longer ones in my career, so to be a part of that and to sort of contribute as well is awesome.”
There have been stretches during this season when Johnson went nearly two weeks between starts. There have also been times when he’s started back-to-back games. But no matter the circumstance, the results have been the same.
Consistency can be hard to evoke in a backup goaltender, yet Johnson is excelling in the role.
“I think he has played so well that it has given us the luxury of giving Tuukka a lot more rest,” Julien said. “It’s certainly given ourselves the chance to prepare properly here for the upcoming playoffs. But it’s just one of those things where it’s great to have another goaltender that can give you the confidence that’s needed for the team that’s playing in front of him.”
That’s not to say it’s easy to do what Johnson has managed to do this year. It was an adjustment, but it was a successful one.
“I think it’s just the experience, and being in more game situations. Obviously I’m more comfortable in that sense, maybe more confident, just being able to play in more games and get on a roll,” he said.
Before Boston, Johnson's largest roles had been starting ones, at the AHL and NCAA levels.
"It's just been a big learning curve for me, and being in this sort of role for myself being a backup. You know, I’ve always been a starter everywhere I’ve gone, so this is a new role for me, and I’ve enjoyed it and embraced it.”