Recharged Goalie Is Earning His Keep

By Tarik El-Bashir
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, September 23, 2006

PITTSBURGH, Sept. 22 -- Brent Johnson doesn't recall exactly what turned his game around last season, but it's easy to pinpoint when the transformation occurred.

Johnson, the Washington Capitals' backup goaltender, went 4-9 with a 4.16 goals against average and a .876 save percentage before the Olympic break. He was 5-3-1 with a 2.40 goals against and .940 percentage after the two-week hiatus.

"We talked in February, right after the Olympics," Capitals goaltending coach Dave Prior said Friday. "Brent recognized he was at a critical point in his career. He knew it was time to get it done, or he would be in the same boat again in the offseason, trying to convince some team that he could be a number two goalie."

He never had to. Thanks to his strong finish, Johnson, who stopped 19 shots in the Capitals' 5-4 preseason victory over the Penguins in overtime on Friday night, earned a one-year, $575,000 contract from the Capitals.

This season, Johnson's role doesn't figure to change much -- start 20 to 22 games and help keep the mood light. But one thing does figure be different: the club's expectations of him. Because if the Capitals are to make a run at the playoffs, they'll need the Johnson who sparkled in the spring, not the Johnson who floundered last fall.

"I want a make a statement when I get to play in net," said Johnson, the son of former NHL goalie Bob Johnson and grandson of Hall of Famer Sid Abel. "I may not play a lot, but when I do, I want to play the way I played at the end of last season, not how I did at the start.

"It was a confidence thing," he added. "I had one good game, and maybe that struck something, and it just snowballed from there. And it just kept going."

The highlight for Johnson came on April 1 at Scotiabank Place in Ottawa. The 6-foot-3, 196-pound netminder turned away all 46 shots he faced in a 1-0 victory over the powerful Senators.

The Capitals' decision to re-sign Johnson was based not only on his second half surge. He proved himself to be a valuable voice in the locker room and he's comfortable being the backup to Olie Kolzig.

"He's personable, he's fun, he brings life to the team," said Coach Glen Hanlon, a former NHL goalie. "It's not just the guys, I like him. I have an appreciation for what he does, because at different stages of my career that was my job. I know how hard it is. Your teammates are out there having fun in practice while you are making the practices your game."

Prior added: "He's the best backup goaltender I've ever been around in terms of his off-ice contribution. He always says the right thing in the dressing room. And he has tremendous respect for Olie, so there's no feeling like, 'Hey, I should be starting.' "

Johnson's performance was uneven against the Penguins, who scored three times on their first 10 shots. But he did not receive much help from a lineup composed mostly of prospects and minor leaguers.

Quintin Laing, Matt Pettinger, Tomas Fleischmann, Jakub Klepis and Matt Bradley scored for the Capitals at Mellon Arena. Bradley's game-winner came 2 minutes 59 seconds into the extra session. The Penguins, meantime, got a pair of power-play goals from Sergei Gonchar.

"I felt good," Johnson said. "It felt good to play 60 minutes. They got some good goals, but it was nice to get the win. I just want to come out and do it again next time."

Capitals Notes: Left wing Alex Ovechkin returned to practice Friday after missing Thursday's skate with an undisclosed minor injury. He did play against the Penguins. Pittsburgh's young stars Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin also did not dress. Crosby was given the night off; Malkin is out indefinitely with a dislocated shoulder. . . . Capitals prospects Chris Bourque and Maxime Daigneault were reassigned to Hershey (Pa.) of the American Hockey League Friday. The next round of cuts is expected Sunday. . . . The Capitals are scheduled to practice Saturday morning at 11:30 at Ashburn Ice House before heading to Hershey to face the New Jersey Devils at Giant Center on Sunday.

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