Last season, Cam Johnson sat on the bench as the backup goalie and watched North Dakota come up short in the Frozen Four semifinals against Boston University. For Johnson, backing up was expected, as junior Zane McIntyre had a phenomenal season.
To say that McIntyre had a “phenomenal” 2014-15 campaign may even be an understatement. He went 29-10-3 with a 2.05 goals-against average and .929 save percentage. He also won the 2015 Mike Richter Award and was a member of the Hobey Hat Trick.
However, rather than pursue an encore as a senior, he departed and signed with the Boston Bruins. This left North Dakota with a large hole in net, and new coach Brad Berry had to decide on his replacement.
The soon-to-be-renamed Fighting Hawks entered this season with four goaltenders on their roster. One was touted freshman and Philadelphia Flyers draft pick Matej Tomek, who had early injury troubles. Another was 5-foot-9 junior Matt Hrynkiw, a walk-on player.
In between those two on the presumed depth chart, there was Johnson, the only player on the roster with in-game experience, albeit just two games during the 2014-15 season.
The last time UND had a freshman goalie play a majority of the team’s games was with Buffalo Sabres draftee Brad Eidsness in 2008-09. Given Hrynkiw’s lack of experience, this left Johnson as the best option for at least as long as Tomek was injured.
Johnson’s early junior hockey career was somewhat shaky. However, a trade from the struggling Fargo Force to the Waterloo Black Hawks benefitted him greatly, and he emerged as a top-tier goalie in the USHL.
He played 20 games with Fargo and went 2-14-3 with a 3.27 goals-against average and a .909 save percentage. In 15 games with Waterloo, he went 11-1-1 with a 1.86 goals-against average and .939 save percentage.
Entering this season, Johnson was named the starter and won his first start. However, he was injured during the third game against Bemidji State, which led to Hrynkiw being called to action.
Hrynkiw performed admirably when he saw time in the crease this year, amassing a 10-2-2 record with a 2.13 goals-against average and .910 save percentage.
Back on track
Johnson returned to game action just over a month after his injury and gave up three goals on 10 shots in relief of Hrynkiw. However, after this game, he went on a hot streak and never really cooled down.
He went on an eight-game winning streak, during which he had four straight shutouts and gave up just one goal in each of the other four games. This trend would continue for Johnson, who lost just four games the rest of the season.
He had a disappointing performance in the regular-season home finale, where he gave up three goals on four shots. He also gave up four goals on two occasions and five in one other game. Aside from that, he had a season to remember, and was simply dominant.
This emergence earned national recognition. Johnson was named a finalist for the 2016 Mike Richter Award. He did not win as his former teammate McIntyre did (Boston College’s Thatcher Demko won) but being named a finalist is an impressive accomplishment.
All in all, Johnson produced a 24-4-2 record with a 1.66 goals-against average and a school-record .935 save percentage. This ranked fourth in wins, second in goals-against average and third in save percentage among the nation’s goalies.
Johnson cemented his place among college hockey’s elite with his performance in the NCAA tournament. His team cruised through the regionals, posting 6-2 and 5-2 wins over Northeastern and Michigan, respectively.
In the Frozen Four semifinals, the Fighting Hawks faced off with Denver, which they had gone 2-2-1 against during the regular season. This proved to be the biggest test for Johnson and the team, as it took a last-minute goal to defeat the Pioneers. Johnson held down the fort, holding Denver to just two goals.
The final game against Quinnipiac was just another dazzling performance. He made 32 saves on 33 shots. The only goal came on a 5-on-3 power play for the Bobcats. This was an appropriate performance to sum up a storybook, breakout season.
The emergence of Johnson was a key factor in North Dakota winning its eighth national championship. In fact, he was arguably better than his predecessor, McIntyre.
The team will surely lose some key players to NHL contracts this offseason. Although, Brock Boeser announced on Monday that he will return, a good sign for UND.
This has also been a year where many undrafted goalies have left the NCAA early to sign NHL contracts, including St. Cloud State’s Charlie Lindgren and Providence’s Nick Ellis. Johnson has numbers that warrant consideration for a similar professional deal.
But if he decides to return to North Dakota for his junior year, it would go a long way towards the team having a chance to defend its title.