WILMINGTON – Do the Bruins have one of the best goaltending tandems in the NHL?
We have absolutely no idea yet.
But there’s a close to 100 percent chance that we’ll finally get an early read on Chad Johnson’s ability to spell Tuukka Rask from time to time in the days ahead. Rask has started the Bruins’ first seven games (and won five), but coach Claude Julien strongly hinted Monday that Johnson would finally get his first start in Buffalo on Wednesday.
While the NHL and NBCSN are billing Wednesday as Rivalry Night, the game against the Sabres will be more important for answering one of the main questions the Bruins had entering this season: Are they as strong in net this season with Johnson as they were last season with Anton Khudobin backing up Rask?
Johnson, who signed as a free agent last summer, got off to a rocky start in the preseason. But in his one and only full game, he shut out Detroit. He hasn’t played since that night, Sept. 22. The best news for Johnson, however, is that the team he’s been facing in practice for nearly a month since that last game might be better than the one he’ll face in Buffalo. The Sabres are 1-8-1 and have scored just 13 goals in 10 games.
Simulating game situations has been key for Johnson staying sharp.
“Yeah as much as possible,” he said when asked about treating practices like his games. “I think when you do line rushes and penalty kills and power play stuff, I definitely try and get into that mental mentality, that intensity that you would when you’re in a game. There’s obviously a different speed adjustment there between practice and games. It’s a little bit slower in practice and a little more controlled. In games, it’s just a little more flow and different situations happen. But for myself I try to make sure I get that mental aspect of it like I would in a game for sure.”
Johnson has never been given a chance to be in the NHL full-time. His small sample size says he’s equipped to handle an NHL workload, with his career 1.97 goals-against average and .929 save percentage in 10 games. Last season in four games with Phoenix, he surrendered just five goals.
The Bruins’ schedule has been light, with the games at Buffalo and at home against San Jose on Thursday representing the first back-to-back situation of the season. So Rask’s been able to play every game without getting run down and the Bruins have benefited from his ridiculous 1.29 GAA and .954 save percentage. Those numbers can’t last, but Rask will have a tough time just matching his great stats of last season if he has to play upwards of 65 games. That’s where Johnson comes in. And if he can’t handle the part-time role he earned in the preseason, the Bruins will have to make alternate plans.
So an early-season game against the Sabres might not do much to inject excitement in your heart, especially on the night the Sox are playing Game 1 of the World Series. But it’s a big game in terms of the Bruins knowing how deep a team they really are.
Matt Kalman covers the Bruins for CBSBoston.com and also contributes to NHL.com and several other media outlets. Follow him on Twitter @TheBruinsBlog.