TAMPA — It was just one preseason game, but Jonas Johansson made a strong impression Friday night at Amalie Arena.
Against a split-squad Hurricanes team that brought its top three forward lines, Johansson stopped all 42 shots he faced in his Lightning debut, a 4-0 win. Fans can exhale a little bit after Thursday’s news that star netminder Andrei Vasilevskiy will miss the first two months of the season recovering from surgery to repair a herniated disc in his lower back.
“He’s a kid that’s been in the league a little bit, but he’s not ever really gotten his chance,” Lightning coach Jon Cooper said. “So you never know when you’re going to get it. Obviously, he signed here knowing he wasn’t coming in to be the starting goaltender, and all of a sudden he’s thrust into a situation where playing time might go up.
“And so you want to see if he’s going to take this opportunity and seize it. It’s a small sample size, just one game tonight, but he sure made a case. For him, confidence-wise, this has to be great for him.”
The Lightning can’t expect Johansson, or fellow newcomer Matt Tomkins, to be Vasilevskiy, and their success without the former Vezina and Conn Smythe award winner will depend more on how the team plays defense than who is in the net. But the 6-foot-5 Johansson stood tall Friday.
He stopped all 38 shots he faced in 5-on-5, including an 18-shot second period that saw Carolina create 12 high-danger scoring chances at even strength. Clinging to a two-goal lead, Johansson also withstood an opening 10 minutes of the third period that saw the Hurricanes pepper him with 13 shots on goal.
“I always try to prepare something as if I’m going to play every game,” Johansson said after Friday’s win. “It doesn’t matter what position I’m in, really. The biggest thing for me is I think showing up in practice and being good every day. That helps in the games, too.”
This all happened quickly. The Lightning went into this week hoping that Vasilevskiy’s injured back wouldn’t require surgery. The pain first crept up in August, and an injection seemed to resolve it. But when he aggravated the injury last Thursday, and was unable to complete the first practice of training camp, everyone in the Lightning organization held their breath.
He received a second injection, treatment and rest, then spent Tuesday and Wednesday testing the injury. He didn’t appear comfortable either day, switching in and out with Johansson, and he looked visibly frustrated. A day later, Vasilevskiy had surgery to repair the disc.
“This happened as early as it possibly could have,” Cooper said before Friday’s game. “Literally, when the decision was made, the procedure would happen within hours, so no, this isn’t something that, ‘Oh, my God, I can’t believe you didn’t get it earlier.’ This is something that flared up right at the beginning of training camp, so there was nothing else that could have been done.”
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The focus of the preseason, and the four remaining exhibition games, is now firmly on Johansson and Tomkins to carry the load.
Johansson, 28, is coming off a strong AHL season in Colorado’s organization with just 35 NHL games under his belt.
“We’re evaluating the goaltending,” Cooper said earlier Friday. “... But our job is to get our team ready. So I can’t emphasize enough it’s about the team and how we’re going to play offense, how we’re going to play defense, how we’re going to transition. That’s what it’s about. The goalie is just one piece. So we need to slot somebody in there for the rest of these exhibition games and games No. 1 through however many we’re going to play (without Vasilevskiy), but it’s about how we’re going to play as a team.”
Tomkins, a 29-year-old who has yet to play an NHL game after playing in the AHL and the past two seasons in Sweden, had an impressive preseason debut in Wednesday’s 2-1 overtime win in Nashville. He stopped 30 of the 31 shots he faced, including all 21 even-strength shots. The only goal Tomkins allowed was on the Nashville power play, and overall he stopped the Predators through nearly 13 short-handed minutes.
“This team has always dealt with adversity pretty well in terms of guys being injured and other guys stepping up,” Lightning captain Steven Stamkos said. “So we’ll just have to hold the fort here until the Big Cat’s back.”
“Guys are going to have to step up, especially the goaltenders,” he added.
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