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Johnson’s strong play propels Irish performance

Sam Gans | Thursday, March 24, 2011

Most Notre Dame students born in February 1989 are currently either interviewing for a job after graduation or determining their grad school plans.

Irish goaltender Mike Johnson, however, is not even halfway through his time at the university.

A native of Verona, Wisc., Johnson — who turns 22 next Tuesday — did not enroll in college directly after completing high school. Rather, the sophomore chose to follow the junior hockey route, playing a total of two seasons for both the St. Louis Bandits, of the North American Hockey League, and the United States Hockey League’s Cedar Rapids RoughRiders. The experience helped Johnson to focus fully on hockey, as well as adjust to life away from home.

“I think that was a really important step for my development, hockey-wise,” Johnson said. “The level of competition [in the USHL] is unbeatable in America for junior hockey. And it helped make the transition to college a lot easier. It also taught me a lot about living on my own.”

Johnson learned how to skate around the time he could walk. Though he didn’t play organized hockey until 3rd grade and didn’t move between the pipes until a year later, Johnson always felt natural on the ice alongside his younger brother, Eric, who will join the Irish squad as a freshman in the fall.

“[Eric and I] would always skate together on ponds,” Johnson said. “That’s when we were really little, before we started playing. And then we wanted to play, because all of our friends did, and it just took off.”

Ultimately, Johnson developed his skills to the point of being recruited to play college hockey. And as comfortable as he felt in the rink, he felt just as much so on Notre Dame’s campus.

“When I came on my visit, I felt like I was at home here. I could feel it,” Johnson said. “And obviously, the academics help and it’s got a great hockey program. The overall combination was unbeatable.”

Upon arriving at Notre Dame, Johnson began last year backing up former Irish netminder Brad Phillips, before moving into the starting slot in the middle of the season. Though Johnson’s stats (.910 save percentage, 2.60 goals-against average) were good enough to earn him a spot on the CCHA All-Rookie team, his play was inconsistent. In 28 starts, Johnson had two shutouts, and allowed only one goal six times. But the Irish gave up four or more goals nine times when Johnson was in net, and he was removed from games four times for poor play. In the season’s final game, an 8-2 defeat against Ohio State in the CCHA playoffs, Johnson gave up 4 goals on 9 shots before being replaced.

Johnson’s numbers this year (.906 save percentage, 2.54 goals-against) are similar to last year. However, the consistency of his play has increased. Although he has no shutouts this season, he has allowed four or more goals only six times in 24 games, and he has finished every game he’s started but one. He has also picked up his play in conference, with a 2.34 goals-against average in CCHA games.

Johnson’s constant effort each night has been a main factor in allowing the Irish to be in the thick of the CCHA race.

“You can have 25 guys playing well, and if the goalie isn’t playing well, you’re not going to win,” senior left wing Calle Ridderwall said. “I think he’s been building momentum for the whole team and saving us when we might be struggling.”

Johnson’s play is particularly noticeable to the other players who also are in charge of keeping the puck out of the net—the defensemen.

“It’s great when defensemen on a team can take confidence in [their] goalie,” senior defenseman and captain Joe Lavin said. “He’s a great goalie, one of the best in the league — one of the best in the country.”

But perhaps even more important than the players, Johnson has gained the confidence of the coaching staff.

“He’s certainly ahead of where he was last year,” Irish coach Jeff Jackson said. “I think that he’s been outstanding for us at times, and the nights even when he’s not outstanding, he’s usually still good.”

Though Johnson has reduced his number of poor games, consistency’s an area he is still focusing on, including this weekend against Miami.

“Once the playoffs come around, you’re going to need to win a lot of games in a row,” Johnson said. “Really bringing it on Friday night and then coming back on Saturday with another strong performance [is important].”