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Rangers' backup goalie taking nothing for granted

by Dave Lozo
There was probably no one who took the New York Rangers' loss to the Atlanta Thrashers on April 7 harder than Chad Johnson.

The 24-year-old goaltender had his fingers crossed that the Rangers would have a playoff spot sewn up before their season finale against the New Jersey Devils, because it meant he would've received something he hadn't in the AHL or NHL for nearly two months -- a start.

But the loss guaranteed the Rangers would need those two points against the Devils, and Johnson knew his last, best chance to make his first start since Feb. 24 -- one that ended early after he allowed 5 goals on 16 shots in two periods for the AHL's Connecticut Whale -- had gone up in smoke.

"I was pretty upset," said Johnson, who was called up March 2 after regular backup Martin Biron suffered a season-ending broken collarbone. "Obviously I'm here to help the team win, but from a personal standpoint, it was a little bit more of a heartbreaker to know I wasn't going to play against New Jersey.

"But I can't complain. I'm happy to be here and be around the guys."

When Johnson says that, he means it.

There's no tinge of frustration or bitterness at all about being glued to the bench during the final 16 games of the regular season while Henrik Lundqvist received all the playing time, save for one 20-minute relief appearance against the Islanders on March 31. Johnson knew if he was getting starts in early April, it would have meant something had gone horribly wrong with Lundqvist.

Johnson would have every right to be frustrated, considering he will become a restricted free agent after the season. A player with his minimal experience (four career NHL starts, all last season) would like to show the Rangers he's capable of playing in the NHL, but Johnson's problem is while he's in the NHL, he hasn't had much of a chance to play in the NHL.

That situation has resulted in Johnson treating practice the way most players treat games, because his future with the club depends heavily on impressing the Rangers and goalie coach Benoit Allaire.

"Every practice I play, especially this being my contract year here, it's important to have good practices so Benny can see me play and the organization knows I can play and belong," Johnson said. "For them to see me and be around the organization on a daily basis always helps you out. I definitely make sure I'm always focused and ready."

Lundqvist has taken Johnson under his wing the past two seasons, offering him some advice whenever the rookie is curious about how the veteran plays shooters like Caps star Alex Ovechkin. They even talk about little things, like the difference in hotel quality when you're traveling with the big club compared to that of the minors.

"I think it also makes you want to work harder and realize this is where he wants to be," Lundqvist said of Johnson's extended time with the Rangers. "I know Johnny pretty well now. He's a good kid. He always works hard and had a good attitude."

While Johnson is living the dream as a member of a team in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, he's one Lundqvist pulled groin or sprained ankle away from having to start a postseason game. With just six career appearances, the Rangers would be entrusting their season to the least experienced goaltender on any playoff roster.

Johnson can't be blamed for lacking experience -- he doesn't decide when he plays -- but he's doing everything he can to be prepared for the worst-case scenario of Lundqvist suffering an injury. Having a three-time Vezina finalist as a role model can only be a benefit.

"I knew I had to always be ready for situations and Hanky had some injuries (neck, knee) there. You always have to be ready," Johnson said. "I'm second in line here. If something happens to Hank, I have to be ready to go. So it's important to me to have good practices to get myself ready in case something happens.

"Even last year when I first got here, I'd talk to (Lundqvist) about players like Ovechkin. For me, it's watching how he plays and how he deals with media and all the attention he gets with that, and how he prepares in practice and how consistent he is in practice and in games.

"It's easy to see why he's one of the best goalies in the NHL, if not the best goalie."

As a backup with no chance of getting a postseason start barring an injury to Lundqvist, there are a few things that can be done to keep interest up. For instance, it's customary for teams to end pregame warmups with everyone trying to stuff the puck past the backup goaltender, something that rarely lasts more than 15 seconds.

Yet before Game 1 against the Capitals on Wednesday, there was Johnson holding off the entire Rangers team for almost a minute while nearly every Capital player had already left the ice and gone back to the locker room.

"The last one there, I was hot," Johnson said jokingly. "It usually doesn’t happen like that. Guys are yelling at me to let it in, and I'm sliding over and I'm in good position and it's just hitting me. I was in a zone. The guys weren’t very sharp in that game we were playing or I was really hot."

Johnson truly is enjoying the ride of his first postseason, taking nothing for granted along the way. But he's about as ready as he can be if coach John Tortorella taps him on the shoulder.

"It's been a pretty cool experience," Johnson said. "Obviously to be part of the organization and get an opportunity to play last year, then to sort of be part of the playoff push here, it's been pretty surreal. Making the playoffs and being around the atmosphere and that intensity, you can't really put it into words.

"It was pretty exciting because you want to get your feet in the NHL and prove you belong there. I was looking forward to getting the start against New Jersey, but that's just how it goes. You can never really count on anything to really happen for sure. You just have to prepare for it and be ready for it if it happens."

Follow Dave Lozo on Twitter: @DaveLozo
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