These are good days for North Dakota goalie Cam Johnson.
When he walked into the media room following last weekend’s home sweep of Minnesota Duluth, the sophomore goalie was scarfing down a quick sandwich before taking questions about the 2-1 win in which he he came up big several times in the final minutes.
One longtime beat writer quipped that Johnson may need an interpreter for the interview, bringing a grin from the sophomore as he cleared his throat and took on all questions.
Relaxed, comfortable, confident.
It’s what happens when your team is No. 4 in the nation and your personal statistics rank second in the country with numbers rivaling that of last year’s Mike Richter Award winner Zane McIntyre.
The Richter is awarded to the best goalie in college hockey each season. And in a season of stellar goalies, Johnson’s 1.54 goals-against average, five shutouts, .940 save percentage and 298-minute shutout streak earlier this season (second best ever in men’s Division I) make him a viable contender to be the second consecutive UND goalie to take home the prestigious honor.
And if you’re just now tuning in to the hockey season for the UND-Nebraska Omaha game Saturday on ASN, his rise might shock you because Johnson’s career certainly didn’t start like this.
As a freshman, Johnson played all of 43 minutes, 20 seconds and gave up four goals on 17 shots while backing up McIntyre.
McIntyre, who posted 29 wins last year – second only to Hall of Famer Eddie Belfour in school history – is also the school’s leader in goals-against average (2.10) and save percentage (.926).
If the overall confidence in Johnson wasn’t at a low based on his first 43:20 in net, it dropped a few more notches in this season’s opener when he let in two quick goals against Lake Superior State. A third goal — 11 seconds in — was disallowed after review.
“I just remember flashing back during that first game thinking ‘Oh no, not again. Not like last year,’” Johnson said. “My confidence was low. Really low.”
Fate, however, was on Johnson’s side — not to mention his teammates and McIntyre, whom Johnson still talks to.
“Mac has always been good to me,” Johnson said. “Even when I was backing him up he’d ask me if I had any questions. He’s always been willing to help me.”
As for fate, many observers thought prized freshman recruit Matej Tomek would be in net by now. Tomek, a third-round pick of the NHL’s Philadelphia Flyers from Bratislava, Slovakia, was believed to be McIntyre’s heir apparent with a sparkling resume, but he was unavailable for the first half of the season because of an injury.
That meant the only backup available for first-year head coach Brad Berry was non-scholarship walk-on Matt Hyrnkiw from Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. Hyrnkiw, a junior, had never played in a game and was better known amongst his teammates for his book smarts than his glove saves.
Solve an equation? Ask Hrnykiw.
Thwart a 2-on-1 rush? Johnson? Tomek? Anyone? (Beuhler, Beuhler?)
So, Johnson returned to the net for game 2, a 1-1 tie at Maine where he was good, not great.
That’s when life threw both Johnson and Hyrnkiw a curve.
Johnson was injured in the second period of the third game against Bemidji State, and Hyrnkiw stepped in and made 10 saves and allowed two goals in a 4-4 tie.
Making his first start the next night, Hyrnkiw let in two of the first four shots he face before settling in and turning back the next 15 to start UND on a 9-2-2 run.
Tomek is now healthy, but Hyrnkiw has been the backup.
UND (24-5-3) is tied for first in the NCHC and ranked No. 4 in the country.
“When Matt stepped in it was really an eye-opener for me,” Johnson said. “It showed me I have to focus and dial-in and get my confidence back and play the way I know how to play. It made me work that much harder and I think that’s what has given me my success so far.”
Tomek is still a viable option, but the one position thought to be a question mark at the beginning of the season on a team loaded with NHL draft choices is now an exclamation point.
Hyrnkiw would be a candidate for any unsung hero awards out there. Johnson trails only Yale’s Alex Lyon .941 to .940 for the best save percentage in the country and 1.51 to 1.54 for the best goals-against average.
His stiffest test may come this weekend at Omaha. When the teams met in Grand Forks, they split the series with Austin Ortega beating Johnson in overtime on a 2-on-1 break.
After the game, Ortega and Johnson texted about the game, and their seasons. They had been teammates on the Fargo Force of the USHL.
“I’ve got some good friends on that team who I’d love to beat and Austin is one of them,” Johnson said. “I think I texted ‘nice shot’ or something, nothing big, but I know this is always a big series with (Omaha coach Dean Blais, former UND coach). He will have them fired up for us. He always does.”