BRUCE BERLET REPORTS – CHAD JOHNSON, A GOALIE LOOKING TO REBOUND

FROM THE CREASE with BRUCE BERLET

Chad Johnson, A Goalie Looking to Rebound

Chad Johnson experienced about the ultimate in good news-bad news last season.

The good? The New York Rangers called up the goalie from the Connecticut Whale on Feb. 28 after backup Martin Biron sustained a broken collarbone when hit by a shot in practice.

The bad? Johnson played only 20 minutes in two months while caddying for Henrik Lundqvist.

And things didn’t start all that well this season when the first shot of warm-ups in the Rangers’ first scrimmage went off Johnson’s facemask, requiring him to go to the bench for repairs.

But Johnson, who struggled much of the season before being summoned by the Rangers, insists spending weeks with the Rangers and goaltending coach Benoit Allaire far outweighed having virtually no playing time.

“It was good to be here with Benoit and work on kind of really getting my game back, tweaking all the little things and getting my habits back,” said Johnson, who won’t play Wednesday night in the Rangers’ preseason opener against the New Jersey Devils in Albany, N.Y., home of the Devils’ AHL affiliate. “In that aspect, it was good for me to be up and be around the atmosphere, the crunch of trying to make the playoffs and then obviously the playoffs, too.

“The experience of being around that atmosphere helped me for sure. Just being exposed to that sort of environment with the fans and the media was good for me. Obviously you want to play games and showcase your skills and help your team win in Hartford or New York, but that was the situation. Being in the minors, you have to anticipate certain situations like that, so I took everything that I could from it.”

The 25-year-old Johnson was 16-19-0 with a 2.72 goals-against average, .901 save percentage and two shutouts in 40 games when called up. Though he benefitted from his time with the Rangers, it was difficult spending all but one period practicing, cheerleading and opening the bench door for his teammates.

“It’s sort of tough because you don’t really do a lot of game-situation stuff throughout practice, especially later in the season,” said Johnson, a fifth-round pick of the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2006 acquired for a similar pick in 2009. “But for me, it was just a matter of keeping my mental intensity up. Benoit was always there after practice to do some small game situations for me. It’s just the situation you’re in, so you have to make the best of it and be ready whenever you possibly can. Obviously I would have like to have played a lot more, but again it’s kind of crunch time, and that was the situation that I was in. I understood the situation and tried to make the most of it. I tried to help the team as much as I could throughout the game, so obviously I was there in a different aspect throughout practice and off the ice, too.”

Johnson admitted his first four months of last season weren’t as good as his rookie campaign when he was 24-18-2 with a 2.54 GAA, .911 save percentage and three shutouts in 44 games with the then Hartford Wolf Pack and 1-1-2, 2.35 and .919 in five games with the Rangers.

“I think it was more my approach to the game,” Johnson said. “I think the way I approached and prepared for games wasn’t what it should have been. I was more worried about the technical side instead of just going out and playing and competing to win the hockey game. So over the summer, I adjusted that as far as preparing for games, along with getting stronger and improving in little things, like my footwork, that Benoit talks about.

“In the end, when you’re in a game, it’s all about competing hard and trying to get those two points somehow. How you get it done is making sure you’re making the saves you should and play solid to help the team win. I think I improved on that aspect, and physically I’ve gotten stronger and in better condition, which I think is going to help my overall game.”

Rangers assistant general manager/assistant coach/Whale GM Jim Schoenfeld agrees that Johnson needs to concentrate better than he did last season, which likely will come with more ice time.

“Being with the Rangers is nice, but playing is better,” Schoenfeld said. “The key is being ready for every shot. His high end is as high as many, but it’s the ability to focus and not let in the one you’re supposed to stop. To me, goalies have to stop everything they’re supposed to stop, plus a few. And even if you stop more than a few that are hard, if you let one in that you’re supposed to stop, it knocks the heck out of your team.

“So that to me is that consistency of focus. You’re not going to get beaten by a bad-angle shot because you’re focused on being where you should be. You’re not going to be beaten by giving up a bad rebound because you’re lazy and don’t steer it into the corner. It’s all that mental clarity, and that’s something that has to be developed, just like your leg strength, your arm quickness and everything else. It’s something that you have to work on all the time.”

Schoenfeld related Johnson’s inconsistency last season to golf, though in the more fast-paced game of hockey, goalies live by the credo, “Ye who hesitates is lost.”

“When you’re learning a new skill or technique, the time to think about is when you’re practicing it, so when you get in a game, you just try to put the ball in the hole,” Schoenfeld said. “When you get in the (hockey) game, you just stop the puck any way you can. You can’t be thinking about a lot of things, so sometimes when they’re going through the process of learning, when the game starts, it doesn’t matter how you do it but you stop the puck. Technique is important – don’t get me wrong, it’s critical to have good technique to be an efficient goaltender – but the most important thing is stopping the puck. After plenty of practice, the habit become habit-forming, but you can’t think about it. It’s a reaction, and your first reaction to the shot has to be instinctive.”

Johnson said he tried to improve the mental part of his game by zeroing in on his goals for every game and individual plays that might arise. He said he has focused on having a clear mind, knowing what his goal is for each game and period and staying in the present without thoughts of outcomes or statistics.

“I just want to keep it simple and not try to do too much or try to win games all by myself,” Johnson said. “I just have to play the way I can and have confidence in doing it, nothing too elaborate because it’s a simple game. My job is simple, you stop the puck. When you start making it too complicated is when you kind of get in trouble. Everybody always has their own little different way of doing things whether it’s coaches or the media saying you should have done this or that, but it’s not really a complex game. You just have to stick to what you do. That’s all you can really worry about.”

It stems from majoring in psychology at the University of Alaska-Fairbanks, where he was the Central Collegiate Hockey Association Player of the Year and a Hobey Baker Award finalist his senior year when he was 14-16-5 but had a 1.66 GAA, .940 save percentage and six shutouts in 35 games.

“You just have to focus to making that next save because nothing else really matters,” Johnson said. “It’s just training your mind to think a certain way. And I learned that from school taking sports psychology stuff, which, as I look back, helped me, too.”

Lundqvist and Biron are ticketed to be the Rangers goalies, with Johnson, Cam Talbot and youngsters Jason Missiaen and Scott Stajcer vying for spots in Hartford, though some decision making apparently has already been made. During the prospects tournament last week in Traverse City, Mich., Rangers director of hockey operations said Missiaen, who spent a month with the Whale last season, would be going to Greenville of the ECHL to get some seasoning. Clark and Schoenfeld have said Stajcer would be headed back to the Ontario Hockey League as an over-aged junior because he has missed most of last season after hip surgery in November. But Stajcer played well in the prospects tournament and a strong camp could earn him a spot with the Whale.

It’s all part of the increased depth in the Rangers organization, which helps in Hartford.

“I think the team is going to be more experienced on the back end,” Johnson said. “Early on last year, we didn’t have a lot of experience with a lot of young guys coming in, which can be a good thing because they compete hard and don’t really care if they’re playing three (games) in three (days) or who you’re playing against. They’re just coming in and competing hard, so I think defensively, we’re going to be a lot stronger. Obviously there are a lot of D-men in the organization and not a whole lot of spots available (in New York), so I think we’re going to be good on defense with a lot of experience and skill.

“Up front, we’re going to have a lot of skill, too, a lot of youth, which I think is going to be good. It brings that energy, that excitement to the game. I think it’s good having young guys in there because you just go out and play, you don’t think about anything else. You just want to go in and play as well as you can when you first get in there, so I think it’s good for the whole team to have a lot of young kids who really compete every day because it brings everybody else up and challenges everyone else in practice and in games to be their best.”

Youngsters such as late-season additions Carl Hagelin, Andrew Yogan, Tommy Grant and Kale Kerbashian could be joined by Ryan Bourque, son of Hockey Hall of Famer Ray Bourque, Jonathan Audy-Marchessault, Jason Wilson, Jordan Hickmott and/or Tayler Jordan. Bourque and Marchessault excelled in the prospects tournament, where the Rangers lost 5-2 in the final to the more experienced Buffalo Sabres.

So with so much youth up front, the defense and goaltending might have to carry the Whale at the start of the season, which begins Oct. 8 against the Adirondack Phantoms in Glens Falls, N.Y. The home opener is Oct. 15 against the Bridgeport Sound Tigers, whose head coach is former Wolf Pack defenseman Brent Thompson. One of his assistants is West Haven native Eric Boguniecki, who was the AHL’s MVP with the then Worcester IceCats in the 2001-02 season.

“It has to start with your goaltending. I think that’s how you win games,” Johnson said. “Whether it’s in the minors or the NHL, teams that do well and go far in the playoffs all have good goaltending throughout the season. And having good defense and playing good strong team defense is important, too, is you’re going to consistently win hockey games. You can win games being really offensive, but you’re not going to be as consistent as if you’re just playing strong defensively.

“So for sure early on, our defense and goaltending are going to have to be our strong points, and with playing strong D, you’re going to get the puck and get more opportunities so you’re going to score more goals. So I think if we just focus on playing well defensively early on, offensively things are going to come.”

While Johnson appears headed to Hartford, he is taking nothing for granted in training camp, especially in light of what happened last season. Not to mention the Rangers will be taking three goalies to Europe for four preseason games before the season opener Oct. 7 against the Los Angeles Kings in Stockholm, Sweden, and everyone knows who two of them will be, barring injuries. Coach John Tortorella said Tuesday that he wants to get Lundqvist and Biron as ready as possible in the preseason games.

“You want to compete and showcase what you can do to the organization and all the scouts that are here,” Johnson said. “Obviously they have Henrik and Marty there, but you come into this camp as a tryout camp and a training camp to compete and battle and show what you can. For me, I’m not really that worried about Hartford. When the time comes and I’m down there, I’ll worry about down there. Right now, I’m worried about trying to make the New York Rangers, even if they do have things penciled in. Things change all the time, so you want to make sure you’re playing the best you possibly can all the time. It’s important for me to have a good camp and do what I do, play the best I possibly can. That’s all that I can control.”

LUNDQVIST, TALBOT BACKSTOP RANGERS IN PRESEASON OPENER

Lundqvist and Talbot were scheduled to split the preseason opener in Albany, and the defensive pairings were Dan Girardi-Brendan Bell, Michael Del Zotto-Steve Eminger and Erixon-Dylan McIlrath, who played together in the prospects tournament.

The lines were (left to right): Brandon Dubinsky-Artem Anisimov-Dale Weise, Hagelin-Erik Christensen-Christian Thomas, Sean Avery-John Mitchell-J.T. Miller and Bourque-Shane McColgan-Andre Deveaux.

Lundqvist told the New York media that this would be the last start that he doesn’t finish but didn’t know which games he would play. He’s likely to start four of the seven preseason games and most assuredly against his former team, Frolunda, on Sept. 30 in Gothenburg, Sweden.

Tortorella said the Rangers will be taking three goalies, 10 defensemen and 18 forwards to Europe. They hope to be down to the maximum 23 for the regular season after the first two games in Europe. The final cuts will join the Whale, giving coach Ken Gernander and assistants J.J. Daigneault and Pat Boller about a week to form their lines and defensive pairings for their opener Oct. 8 against the Adirondack Phantoms in Glens Falls, N.Y.

Right wing Chad Kolarik, who played his first four NHL games with the Rangers last season after being acquired from Dane Byers on Nov. 13, wasn’t scheduled to play Wednesday but couldn’t even practice. He tried to skate after having his knee buckle Tuesday during a scrimmage but quickly left the ice after finding he could not extend his knee.

The 25-year-old forward played reasonably well and had an assist on the fourth line with the Rangers as an injury replacement, and his past performance will be part of his evaluation this year.

“He did some things for us last year,” Tortorella said. “You can’t take anything away or against what they’ve done prior. You have to keep it in your memory how they’ve played. But it’s also, ‘Are they improving?’ And Kolarik is not getting a chance to show that if he can’t skate.”

Kolarik, Weise, Hagelin, Bourque and Mats Zuccarello are vying for a possible one or two forwards spots, with veterans Avery and Christensen on the bubble.

“There’s a lot of players in there that really need to show some things to really move along,” Tortorella said after the morning skate. When asked if that included Avery and Christensen, Tortorella said “very definitely.”

We’ll have a look at the game and reactions Thursday.

WHALE COACHES EARN PLAUDITS

All of the Rangers hierarchy that we talked to believe training camp has been competitive and fast paced. Tortorella said much of the credit goes to Clark and the scouts and the Whale coaches.

“Gordie Clark and his crew are the people looking at kids, drafting the kids,” Tortorella said. “I go back to even Kenny (Gernander) and (his assistants). When we had all the injuries last year we were playing with a lot of the Hartford guys for a good part of the season. They came in and did a great job and really did give us an opportunity to get into the playoffs. So organizationally, I think we’ve added to our depth. I think we’ve done a great job down there and with our scouts and player development as far as adding to our depth with drafts and having to come along through our system.

“This is what we want to do. We have a captain (former Wolf Pack All-Star right wing Ryan Callahan) that’s come through our system; he’s the captain of our team now. This is what you want to do. So I think you really need to look to give some credit to the people that are out there, watching these games, drafting and the minor-league team that have helped develop them.”

When asked if that really matters, Tortorella had an emphatic response.

“Absolutely. Absolutely,” he said. “In a (salary) cap world, and where we’re at right now, I think it’s huge as far as how they feel about it, and the business end from us, how we’re going to go about our business, not just for one year, but as you go along. Again, that’s why I’m excited. I’m excited that Ryan Callahan is the captain of the team. He is one of us. He has gone through the system, been drafted on through and now he’s turned into this. It’s a great example and I think the players really come together with that when you get to your National Hockey League team, the top team in your organization.”

Schoenfeld agreed that Callahan was the logical successor to Trumbull native Chris Drury, who retired Aug. 19 after having the final year of his five-year, $35.25 million contract bought out by the Rangers on June 23.

“Ryan was the heir apparent,” Schoenfeld said. “I really liked Chris and admired the way he played, but people knew Cally was the right choice. He plays the game the way it’s supposed to be played, and he’s homegrown. He’s a Ranger.”

STAAL BACK BUT CAUTIOUS

All-Star defenseman Marc Staal returned to the ice Tuesday, taking part in drills and practice but not a scrimmage after being sent home for not feeling well on Monday. Staal has been bothered by headaches since summer and said that getting through the first three days of intense training camp with only minor issues was a good sign.

“I couldn’t get through my workouts at the start of the summer because of the headaches, but it has been steadily improving since,” said Staal, who also skated Wednesday. “It’s frustrating. It’s something I’ve never had before, but I’ve been improving quite a bit the past two-three weeks, so I’m just hoping it keeps heading in that direction.”

Staal originally sustained a concussion when hit by his brother, All-Star center Eric Staal of the Carolina Hurricanes on Feb. 22.

“He’s not real happy about it,” Marc said of Eric. “But it is what it is. You can’t really do anything about it now.”

Marc passed baseline tests after hit by Eric and before training camp, but the headaches continue depending on the extent of his workouts. As a precaution, the Rangers are holding Staal out of scrimmages and at least the first three preseason games in hopes he will be ready for the regular-season opener on Oct. 7 against the Los Angeles Kings in Stockholm, Sweden.

“It depends on the length and the hardness of the workout,” Staal said of the severity of his headaches. “Some days I’ll get a headache late in the day that’ll last sometimes four or five hours, or it’ll last one hour. That’s just kind of the way it’s been going the last couple of weeks.

“I feel no symptoms if I don’t do anything. If I sit on the couch all day, I don’t get any headaches or anything like that. If I push myself really hard, later on in the day, I’ll more times than not get a headache.”

Tortorella acknowledged it’s much more difficult dealing with a concussion than other injuries but is trusting Staal to let the Rangers know how he’s feeling.

“It’s a hard one,” Tortorella said. “You want to be careful. I’m a coach (that thinks) you need to keep pushing athletes. Sometimes athletes are sore but not hurt. Not everybody feels perfect, but you’ve got to be careful. (A concussion) is not tangible. It’s a difficult injury. You leave it up to the player. He needs to communicate with you. There’s a league-wide push on us on the need to be careful.

“I trust him. Take away the head injury, sometimes you don’t trust a player. I trust him.”

All sides are hoping a cautious approach will bring a full recovery for the Rangers assistant captain who forms the team’s No. 1 defensive pairing with former Wolf Pack Girardi. But if Staal’s health issues become a long-term concern, it will be a major blow to the Rangers’ hopes of joining the NHL’s elite.

The one bright side of Staal’s injury is management will get a chance to look at defensemen on the bubble for one or two roster spots such as Del Zotto, Pavel Valentenko, Tomas Kundratek and newcomers Bell and Erixon, son of former Rangers wing Jan Erixon and the Rangers’ best player in the prospects tournament.

“We’re going to keep on looking at guys, and that is a position that there are spots wide open,” Tortorella said. “So we’ll get some guys in situations to take a look at them in the exhibition games.”

WHALE OPEN CAMP SATURDAY

The Rangers prospects will play their Devils counterparts Friday at 1 p.m. in Newark, N.J., before the parent clubs face off at 7 p.m. Then the Rangers will make their first cuts and send an as-yet undetermined number of players to the Whale, who open camp Saturday at Champions Skating Center in Cromwell with physicals and testing.

The Rangers cuts are expected to join nine players not invited to Rangers camp, including veteran defenseman Wade Redden, who has played 994 NHL games with the Ottawa Senators and Rangers and was an extremely positive influence on the Whale’s young players in his first time in the minors last season. Redden, 34, wasn’t invited to Greenburgh because his $6.5 million contract doesn’t fit under the salary cap, and it would count toward the cap if he was injured in Rangers camp.

The Whale will have their first scrimmage open to the public Sunday from 10:40 to 11:40 a.m. The Whale’s first preseason game is Sept. 27 at 7 p.m. against Albany at the Koeppel Community Sports Center on the campus of Trinity College in Hartford. The game benefits the Ryan Gordon/Connecticut Whale Community Scholars Fund, with donations accepted at the door in lieu of an admission charge. The fund memorializes longtime Wolf Pack fan Ryan Gordon, who died in 2006 from cancer and asked that the money set aside for his college education be donated to three charities, including the Connecticut Whale Community Foundation.

The Whale also will play at the MassMutual Center in Springfield on Sept. 28 at 7 p.m. against the Falcons and then host the Worcester Sharks at the TD Bank Sports Center on the campus of Quinnipiac University in Hamden on Sept. 30 at 7 p.m. ($5 admission benefits Gaylord Hospital in Wallingford) and on Oct. 2 at 2 p.m. at Champions Skating Center ($5 admission benefits Junior Wolf Pack youth hockey).

MODANO RETIRES – VIA FACEBOOK AND TWITTER

Mike Modano, the all-time leading NHL scorer among U.S.-born players, retired on his Facebook and Twitter accounts on Tuesday and announced he will hold a press conference Friday.

“After a long summer of thinking about my future, I’ve come to the decision that it’s time to retire as a player from the NHL,” Modano wrote on his Facebook page, a link to which he also posted to his Twitter account. “There’s way too many people to thank here at this time and too much to say, so I have a press conference scheduled for early Friday afternoon. Check back Friday late afternoon for more. What a great ride it’s been!

Modano played 1,499 regular-season NHL games, including 1,459 with the Minnesota/Dallas franchise, and finished his career with 561 goals and 813 assists. The first pick of the 1988 draft, he made his NHL debut with the North Stars in 1989 and played 21 seasons. The native of Livonia, Mich., returned home last season to play with the Red Wings, but injuries limited him to only 40 games.

“The greatest American player ever,” former teammate Brett Hull told The Hockey News. “I don’t think there’s one better. He’s by far No. 1.”

Modano won the Stanley Cup with the Stars in 1999 and holds NHL records for the most goals, points, playoff points (145) and games played by a U.S.-born player. He also holds Minnesota/Dallas franchise records for games played in the regular season, games played in the playoffs (174), goals in the regular season (557), goals in the playoffs (58), assists in the regular season (802), assists in the playoffs (87) and points in both the regular season (1,359) and playoffs (145). He was named to the All-Rookie team in 1990 and played in eight All-Star Games.

BLUE JACKETS SIGN UMBERGER TO BIG DEAL, SPLIT TWO WITH JETS

Center R.J. Umberger, who worked out the Wolf Pack but never played for the Rangers, signed a five-year, $23 million contract with the Columbus Blue Jackets that also was revealed via social media on Wednesday.

“We have signed RJ to a 5 year extension,” Blue Jackets general manager Scott Howson tweeted. “Thrilled to have such a big part of our team signed long term.”

Umberger is entering his fourth season in Columbus after spending his first three NHL seasons with the Philadelphia Flyers. He hasn’t missed a game in a Blue Jackets uniform and has 74 goals and 84 assists. He has scored at least 23 goals in each of his three seasons with Columbus and had 32 assists in each of the last two. He had a career-best 57 points last season.

The announcement of Umberger’s signing came just hours after the Blue Jackets split two games with the new Winnipeg Jets. They won 5-1 at home but were routed 6-1 in the return of the NHL to Manitoba after a 15-year absence in a game that had the feel of a Stanley Cup game before a sellout crowd of 15,003 at the MTS Center. Mark Scheifele, the seventh overall pick in June, had two goals and two assists for the Jets, and former Wolf Pack wing Alexandre Giroux assisted on the Blue Jackets’ only goal by Ryan Johansen, the fourth overall pick in 2010.

Winnipeg fans roared from the moment the Jets hit the ice for warm-ups, rarely rested throughout the game and screamed “Go Jets Go” countless times. “The atmosphere was electric,” said Blue Jackets coach Scott Arniel, a member of the original Jets and 2009 AHL Coach of the Year while with the Manitoba Moose when they played in Winnipeg. “We knew it was going to be loud, and it was.” Could this be Hartford again in a few years?

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