After backstopping his club to a third consecutive win, a 5-2 offensive romp over the Ottawa Senators, Brent Johnston made his point of view clear – there is no goaltending controversy on the Pittsburgh Penguins.
“[Marc-Andre Fleury] is the face of goaltending here; everyone knows that. It’s his job,” Johnson said. “I’m grateful that I get the chance to play a couple games here and get some W’s for the guys, but everyone in this dressing room knows that it’s Flower’s team. He’s the goalie who’s going to be there down the stretch.”
For the start of the season, though, it’s been Johnson who’s been between the pipes for the Penguins’ successes. After a strong preseason, Fleury struggled out of the gate in the regular season, posting one-goal losses in home starts against the Philadelphia Flyers, Montreal Canadiens and Toronto Maple Leafs. After four games, Pittsburgh was 1-3, with Johnson holding the lone win in a road contest against the New Jersey Devils.
So – perhaps in an effort to exorcise any perceived curses at the new CONSOL Energy Center or, perhaps, to take some of the pressure off of Fleury – head coach Dan Bylsma gave Johnson the home start last Friday against the New York Islanders. After a 3-2 Penguins win, the coach surprised many by going with Johnson for the second time in as many nights Saturday in Philadelphia.
And, after Pittsburgh came home from the City of Brotherly Love with a 5-1 win, Bylsma went with the numbers and stuck with his hot goaltender Monday against Ottawa. Again, it paid off.
“Right now, you’ve got a guy with [some of] the best numbers in the league in a couple categories, winning hockey games for you, making big saves,” Bylsma said. “And he got that opportunity to do it again tonight and we get another win.”
Johnson’s perfect 4-for-4 record puts him in a three-way tie for most wins among NHL goalies. He’s seventh on the list of both goals-against average leaders (1.49 GAA) and save percentage leaders (.950).
“The most important thing is getting the two points, especially here at home where we kind of got off to a slow start, and now we’ve won the last two,” Johnson said. “It’s nice.”
Bylsma’s confidence in his backup goaltender didn’t stem from anything he saw during the preseason, where Johnson’s chances to play were limited. Instead, his trust – much like the two-year contract extension to which Pittsburgh signed Johnson last summer – came from the veteran netminder’s proven ability to answer the call when needed.
“Brent didn’t get a huge opportunity in camp, but he did play some good hockey for us last year; he had some good numbers for us,” Bylsma said. “So it’s not surprising to see him do this. He’s had stretches in the National Hockey League in the past where he’s done this for good periods of hockey for his team.”
According to Johnson, whose career so far was spent mostly with the St. Louis Blues and Washington Capitals, that’s all part of the preparation involved in being a reliable backup goalie.
“I felt great right from the start of training camp,” Johnson said. “Every summer, I work hard to get into a position where I can play if I’m called upon, and it’s important right now that, if I am looked upon to get in there, I just try to get the job done.”
Like Johnson, the man who makes the roster decisions sees no goaltending controversy in his team’s near future.
“Marc-Andre Fleury is our franchise goalie,” Bylsma said. “He’s our No. 1 guy, and he’s a guy we count on to be a great goaltender for us and make big saves just like he has in the past. He’ll get to that again. He’ll get back in there, and his teammates are confident in what he’s going to bring to our team.”
Odds are that Fleury will get an opportunity during one of the Penguins’ three upcoming road games in Nashville, St. Louis or Tampa Bay. Whether it will come Thursday against the Predators, however, is anyone’s guess.
“I’m enjoying the victory tonight before I even come close to going there,” Bylsma said Monday.
As for Johnson, he just plans to enjoy the ride for however long it lasts.
“I don’t expect anything,” he said. “Honestly, we find out maybe the night before and that’s it. I always look forward to practicing hard and seeing what happens.”