At a time of the season when goaltending often is held as the highest premium a team can have, Minnesota got to the Frozen Four despite some questions between the pipes.
It didn’t hurt that the Gophers scored 16 goals in two West Regional games, including nine in their first-round victory over Mercyhurst. But on Saturday, Minnesota was in the odd position of switching its goaltenders in a game in which it was leading 5-2, and not because of injury.
Justin Johnson, one of the biggest reasons the Gophers got the No. 1 seed in the regional after his play in the WCHA Final Five last weekend, was pulled from the Gophers’ 7-4 regional final victory over Ferris State at Mariucci Arena after allowing two soft goals in the first period.
That wasn’t the only shaky play in goal at the West Regional. North Dakota swapped goalies in its semifinal loss to the Bulldogs. Mercyhurst’s Andy Franck allowed nine goals on Friday, although he faced 56 shots.
Ferris State’s Mike Brown was the goalie selected to the All-Regional team, largely because of his play against 46 North Dakota shots — many of them from the quality area — on Friday. He saw seven goals go past him on Saturday.
But Minnesota is the only one of the four West Regional teams that has to worry about goaltending the rest of the way. Travis Weber, who got the victory over Mercyhurst but missed the Final Five because of an injured finger, relieved Johnson on Saturday.
“Travis came in and probably would have liked to have the first one back, but he did a pretty good job under the circumstance where you get thrown in a regional final like that,” Minnesota coach Don Lucia said. “Travis is pretty calm in the way he plays. He doesn’t get rattled very often.”
Lucia was elusive when discussing his goaltender situation after Friday’s game. He didn’t publicly disclose who his starter was going to be for Saturday, and he might take a similar stance in advance of the Frozen Four.
Weber has the better statistics of the two — a 2.57 goals against average and an .898 save percentage — but Johnson has the edge in record, 10-2-2.
Weber, a sophomore, started the last four games of the regular season and both of the Gophers’ first-round WCHA playoff games against Michigan Tech. He was injured trying to catch a shot in the second game and was replaced by Johnson.
Johnson, also a sophomore, was named to the Final Five all-tournament team after making 36 shots in the championship game victory over Colorado College.
“Justin, quite honestly, played so well last weekend that we really felt that he earned the right to play this weekend, that without his outstanding play in our WCHA Final Five, that we wouldn’t have the No. 1 seed this weekend,” Lucia said. “So we really felt as a staff we owed that to Justin.”
But on Saturday, Johnson allowed two goals on six shots in the first period. The first shot eluded him from near the blue line, although a screen may have been involved. The second shot came from below the goal line and deflected off Johnson’s stick and pads before going in.
“I don’t know if he was nervous. He was a little victimized by those couple goals,” Lucia said. “We were playing so well and he just didn’t seem to be on, and at that point in time we had to make a change. We have to do what’s best for the team now. Maybe early in the year we might have let him stay in to see if he would have righted the ship, but not now. You just can’t.”
Lucia said the decision to start Johnson was made in part on Weber’s experience in playing on less than 24 hours rest. Against Minnesota State-Mankato in January, Weber allowed four goals in a tie with the Mavericks, an afternoon game after a night game.
The coach also hinted Johnson may not be out of the mix, despite his performance on Saturday. Johnson is 2-1 this season against Colorado College, a possible opponent in the national semifinals.
Minnesota might not have a goaltender controversy entering the Frozen Four, but it doesn’t exactly have everything sewn up, either. Going into the last weekend of the season, that’s not the best position to be in.