by Lindsay Kramer || NHL.com
As someone who grew up in Saskatoon and went to college at Alaska-Fairbanks, rookie goalie Chad Johnson had never traveled much east of Middle America.
That’s changing as his career in Hartford lifts off and he gets a good look around the New England area.
The tour wouldn’t be complete, of course, without a stop in the mother of all metropolises, New York City. Johnson swung by there during the preseason, when he watched an exhibition game of the parent club Rangers. He was impressed with what he saw on the ice and awed by the sights and sounds of the streets.
"It’s a crazy experience. There’s really no city like it in the world," he said. "You are constantly looking up, trying to figure out what building this is. All the people around you — it gets a little hectic."
That sort of thing happens to first-time visitors. Spend a little time there and the whirl becomes part of you.
The way Johnson has started with the Wolf Pack, his acclimation process could begin a lot sooner than expected.
Through the first several weeks of the season, Johnson, 23, has been one of the best net newcomers in the AHL. He’s off to an 8-5-1 start, with a 2.06 goals-against average, a .927 save percentage and three shutouts.
This pro hockey thing has been a nut he’s cracked pretty quickly. Earlier this season, he became the third goaltender in Wolf Pack history to register shutouts in back-to-back games. And he’s allowed just 11 goals in his last eight games.
How long is the journey from Hartford to New York in hockey terms? That right now seems completely up to Johnson.
"Right now, I’m playing well. But it’s a long season," he said. "For me, I always try to be consistent. Once you start doing well, people say you’re hot. I try to play the exact same way every year."
As much of the net as the 6-foot-2, 175-pound Johnson covers, sometimes it seems fair to ask whether there actually is two of him. In a manner of speaking, there is.
Johnson is a twin. And if his brother, Curtis, had shown interest in playing goal at the crossroads moment of their hockey careers, maybe Chad never would have headed toward these parts at all.
The brothers followed the script right up to the point where they played pickup hockey against each other all the time. Eventually, they decided one of them should go in net.
Curtis tried it and said no way. Chad was more amenable to the notion.
"Looking back, I just don’t think he was very good at it. He didn’t enjoy it very much," Chad said. "As soon as I went in the net full-time, I didn’t want to leave. You kind of get good at it. You fall in love with the position."
With the proper care and nurturing, that affection was returned. Johnson split time during his first two seasons at Alaska-Fairbanks, and then was limited to seven games by an ankle injury as a junior.
With a final season to grab some spotlight, Johnson put on one of the best shows in the country. He won the starting job as a senior in 2008-09, and although his record was a mundane 14-16-5, he led the NCAA in GAA (1.66) and save percentage (.940).
"That was the biggest thing, knowing you are going to be the guy, you are going to be relied upon," he said.
Johnson wanted to carry that motivation into the pros, but he wasn’t sure he was going to find it with Pittsburgh Penguins, the organization that took him in the fifth round of the 2006 Entry Draft. He told the Penguins they should weigh their options, as he would his. If there was a trade out there involving him, he suggested they consider it.
After assessing its already-rich goaltending stockpile, Pittsburgh complied by sending him to the Rangers in a draft-day trade last summer in exchange for a 2009 fifth-round pick.
"Pittsburgh had a lot of goalies in their system. I wasn’t too comfortable with the goalie situation there," he said. "I’m happy with the decision. I felt a little more comfortable with the feeling I get with the (Rangers) organization."
Johnson has made that work both ways, and according to Hartford coach Ken Gernander, the rookie has been the epitome of a security blanket for the Wolf Pack so far.
"The fact that he’s a rookie didn’t really scare us," Gernander said. "Chad’s play has been such that we continue to get him in there. He’s not one of those goalies who is all over the place. He seems to have settled in and is playing the type of goal we anticipated."
For his part, Johnson more hoped for this kind of early success than expected it.
The bright lights of his nearby goal dazzle him. But they don’t blind him, and he can’t even begin to squint and make out his name flashing among them.
"I don’t think I really look too far in advance. You don’t know where in this business you are going to end up," he said. "It’d be incredible if, in two years, three years, next year, whatever, I have an opportunity to be part of the Rangers. I don’t sit and dream about myself too much. Maybe, when you are real young; when you are older, you keep things in perspective. You realize there is a lot of work to put into it."
Lindsay Kramer, the AHL correspondent for NHL.com, profiles an up-and-coming player each Monday during the season, and his AHL notebook appears each Thursday on NHL.com.