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Man of the hour

Chris Allen | Wednesday, April 6, 2011

There’s a very good reason that Mike Johnson leads Notre Dame onto the ice before every game he plays.

He is the goalie — a position that, in postseason hockey, can either carry a team to a championship or prove its ultimate downfall. This means that, whether he likes it or not, as Johnson goes, so go the Irish. Luckily for No. 3 Notre Dame, the sophomore relishes the spotlight.

“I like the pressure that comes with the position,” Johnson said. “I also like the fact that I’m on the ice all the time and can make an impact in every game.”

It takes a special, almost quirky mentality — for example, Johnson eats “a banana before every game,” — to play a position that is among the most high-pressure and mentally fragile in sports. While all other players skate on and off the ice in shifts, the goalie remains on the ice, responsible for every shot put on net. The net minder needs an entirely different mindset and skill set from a forward or defenseman, but Johnson said the position was something he went into without much thought.

“I played street hockey when I was younger and always played goalie,” he said. “I kind of liked watching the goalies when I watched hockey, so it was one of those things that I just sort of fell into, I guess.”

After learning the game on the ponds in Wisconsin, Johnson eventually set his sights on playing the game at a higher level in junior hockey and at the collegiate level. After one season with the St. Louis Bandits of the NAHL in 2007-08, he moved onto the USHL with the Cedar Rapids RoughRiders for the 2008-09 season. With the RoughRiders, Johnson enjoyed a breakout season, posting 25 wins and starting for the North Division squad in the USHL Prospect/All-Star Game.

Tradition of greatness

That success eventually led the Verona, Wisc. native to Notre Dame and coach Jeff Jackson’s program. By putting on the pads as an Irish goalie, Johnson was stepping into the skates of two of the best goalies in Notre Dame history in Jordan Pearce and All-American David Brown, whose careers spanned the 2004-09 seasons. Despite his youth, Johnson saw notable time in his freshman season in 2009-10, making 28 starts and being selected to the CCHA all-rookie team in a subpar Notre Dame campaign. Johnson said he was surprised by the early playing time.

“I didn’t expect to play so much early,” Johnson said. “I knew that if I worked hard I was going to get my chance, and it came a little sooner than I expected which was awesome. I’m a competitor, and I always want to be in there. It was a really good experience for me to get a year under my belt so early.”

One reason for Johnson’s quick acclimation to the college game is the presence of Jackson as a teacher and mentor. A former goalie himself during his playing days, Jackson has a hands-on influence in the play of his goalies; something that Johnson said elevates his game.

“It’s huge. [He and I] work one-on-one all the time, and sometimes me and [freshmen goalies] Steven Summerhays and Joe Rogers go out there with him and we work on things we need to get better at,” Johnson said. “He’s full of insight, and he knows a lot about the position. It’s helped me mentally.”

Splitting time

Coming off a surprisingly successful rookie campaign, Johnson entered the 2010-11 season as the apparent starter between the pipes from the opening game despite the arrival of talented recruits Summerhays and Rogers.

During Notre Dame’s bounce-back campaign, Johnson enjoyed a season that saw both its ups — a 28-save performance in a 2-1 win over then-No. 1 Boston College on Oct. 23 — and its downs, sprinkled throughout the conference schedule. It became evident to Jackson that his first-choice goalie was struggling with consistency in big games, something the coach attributed partly to Johnson’s tendency to over-think.

“I think part of it is he wants to do well so badly and that is a factor,” Jackson said. “But I also think he thinks too much sometimes when he plays. When he’s in the zone, as they call it, he’s focused on the environment and the process — just about making the save and trying to control the rebound.”

Eventually, Johnson’s somewhat erratic play opened the door for Summerhays to crack into the lineup in a handful of key CCHA series. Johnson and Summerhays split time in Notre Dame’s final four regular-season series. Johnson took the demotion of sorts as a chance to rest up for playoff hockey.

“I think it was a break, both physically and mentally,” he said. “You know, Steven earned that job. He’s worked really hard this year, and he deserves to get in there and play. It was great to see him do well. It was really great for me to take it easy physically and mentally toward playoffs.”

Though the two competed for playing time in some of the biggest games of the Irish season, Summerhays said his relationship with the elder Johnson is close on and off the ice.

“I think Johnson’s one of the top goalies in all of college hockey, not just the CCHA, and last weekend he showed that he is one of the top goalies in college hockey,” Summerhays said. “To be able to split time with him and be able to watch him every day in practice has made me a better goaltender.

“On and off the ice, me and Johnson are really close, it’s not just that we work together, it’s that in practice we’re both really big competitors and we can push each other every day to get better.”

Frozen asset

Johnson responded to the platoon situation in a big way in the postseason, wresting control of the starting job with his experience and — after a disappointing CCHA Championship in Detroit — by turning in his best performances of the season in the NCAA Regional in Manchester, N.H. Johnson turned in a dazzling performance in overtime of Notre Dame’s 4-3 win over Merrimack and followed that up with perhaps his best game of the season against New Hampshire in the Regional Final. Johnson’s 37 saves earned him Regional MVP honors, and the sophomore said confidence was key in his performance.

“I think the confidence and the excitement from the Merrimack game just carried over,” he said. “I was just ‘playing.’ It was like I was out there on the pond when I was eight years old, just playing. I wasn’t thinking about anything. We had no pressure on us.”

Playing his best hockey of the season, Johnson gets to live out one of his childhood dreams by playing in the Frozen Four, something made all the more sweet after enduring ups and downs in the regular season.

“I’ve wanted to go to the Frozen Four my whole life,” Johnson said. “It’s always been a dream of mine, and to be able to go there this year is absolutely incredible. I’m excited and I know the team’s excited to get up there.”

Entering the national semifinal against Minnesota-Duluth, Johnson said he understands the importance of seizing the opportunity on the national stage. Notre Dame’s current senior class played in the Frozen Four in 2008, but endured a disappointing first-round exit in 2009 and missed postseason play in 2010.

“The seniors had told us how they made it in their freshman year and they hadn’t made it back since,” Johnson said. “We knew that this opportunity doesn’t come around often, so we needed to take advantage of it.”

Though the Frozen Four is full of traditional powers this season, including nine-time title winner Michigan and seven-time winner North Dakota, Johnson said Notre Dame’s underdog mentality served it well in the regional round.

“Going into the tournament, I don’t think we felt a lot of pressure on us. Everyone was kind of overlooking us,” he said. “But we knew how good we could be. The guys in the locker room know that we could be the best team in the country. I think we showed that we can play with the big guns of college hockey, and that just boosted our confidence in knowing that we can play two games in a row.”

If the Irish can once more win two games in a row, then Johnson, the young gun who’s undergone a benching and won a regional MVP in the same season, will reach a plateau that no Irish goalie has before — a national championship.