Perhaps no one in college hockey this
year has been more polarizing than Jack Johnson, Michigan’s
immensely gifted freshman defenseman. And that includes
Senor Kessel out in Gopherland.
Johnson is almost universally hated
by opposing fans, tiny CCHA forwards and the entire
nation of Canada for his brutally physical style of
play. But because of that very physicality, he’s
adored by his teammates, the Yost Arena faithful and
the hundreds of pro scouts who have watched him play
the past few years. Those admirers no doubt enjoy
his effortless skating, booming shot and humble nature,
Johnson, who was picked No. 3 overall
in last summer’s NHL draft by Carolina, has
scored nearly a point per game during his first season
at Michigan (10 goals, 22 assists in 35 games). That’s
a greater output than any other true defenseman in
the league, and the second-most among CCHA rookies
at any position.
But then you have to consider his mind-blowing
143 penalty minutes, more than double anyone else
on the Wolverines. He’s been kicked out of several
games for major penalties, and had to sit out another
contest as a suspension for receiving a game disqualification.
Some fans have labeled Johnson as a dirty player.
Others think he’s just playing a professional-style
game within the less-physical nature of college hockey.
Speculation abounds that Johnson will be a pro within
the next month, anyway, but he says that isn’t
on his mind. Not with a CCHA semifinal against archrival
Michigan State on tap for Friday.
INCH chatted with Johnson for a few
minutes before one of Michigan’s practices this
week. Here’s what he had to say:
Record: 25-7-4 (20-6-2 CCHA)
RedHawk note: Eight
players from the state of Michigan are on Miami’s
roster, the most of any state or province. In
that octet are star defenseman Andy Greene and
freshman blueliner Alec Martinez, who scored
the first three goals of his career last weekend,
including the last goal in Goggin Ice Arena
history, Saturday’s overtime winner.
How Miami wins:
Even though Oxford is much closer geographically
to Detroit than Marquette is, we reckon Miami
will have the fewest fans at the Joe. So that
calls for the RedHawks to play like they’re
the road team. Objective No. 1 will be to protect
the goalie, Charlie Effinger on Friday and Jeff
Zatkoff on Saturday. From there, look for a
simple game from the RedHawks – out of
the zone, over the red line, into the zone –
until opening it up in the third period, if
2 Michigan State Record: 22-11-8 (14-7-7
Spartan note: The
team got a bad draw when CBS decided that the
MSU hoopsters would tip off their first NCAA
Tournament game at 7:10 p.m. Friday, or about
an hour before the hockey game starts. That
should cut into the usually significant green-and-white
How MSU wins: MSU
hasn’t lost in its last seven games against
Michigan, but it hasn’t won much, either
(2-0-5). There will be a winner Friday night,
but how long that will take to determine is
anybody’s guess. Thus, the Spartans will
have to play a smart game and not give up any
bad goals that could decide a tight game. The
overall weekend goal will be to resurrect the
offense of games 2 and 3 against Alaska Fairbanks
(13 goals) and bury that of Game 1 (one goal).
The defense and Jeff Lerg must tighten up, too,
as Miami, Michigan and NMU are far more potent
that UAF was.
Michigan Record: 20-13-5 (13-10-5
If you can believe it, last week’s first-round
dusting of Ferris State was Michigan’s
first sweep of 2006. The last time they were
allowed to sing “The Victors” in
the postgame locker room was after sweeping
visiting Nebraska-Omaha on Dec. 9-10.
How Michigan wins: We
said it last week, and we’ll say it again:
Goaltending. Noah Ruden was serviceable against
Ferris State, but must be several notches better
this weekend. The Wolverines are younger and
more inexperienced than their three counterparts,
so early success could do a lot for their psyches.
The team is still searching for genuine confidence.
4 Northern Michigan Record: 22-14-2 (14-12-2)
Wildcat note: The Wildcats’
current six-game winning streak is the longest
of coach Walt Kyle’s four-year tenure.
Northern also has won eight of its last 10 games.
How NMU wins: The
biggest long shot in the field is also the hottest
team. Northern’s veteran bunch finally
seemed to get on the same page about a month
ago, and the newfound cooperation has been evident
at both ends of the ice. Of course, most of
the recent success occurred at the Berry Events
Center, so it will be interesting to see how
NMU reacts to the distant locale and smaller
ice. Logic dictates that goalie Bill Zaniboni
will be in the spotlight, but the bigger issue
might be at the other end of the rink. If the
Wildcats can score four or so goals, as they’ve
been doing lately, they will be a tough out.
Inside College Hockey: First
of all, congratulations on scoring the series-winning
goal against Ferris State last week. Tell us about
that. Jack Johnson: It was a great feed from
T.J. Hensick right at the top, so it was hard not
to score on a play like that. I was just so excited
and happy to make the fans go crazy and score one
for the team.
INCH: Everybody kind of
figured you would step in and be successful this year,
but how has the season gone, relative to your expectations? JJ: It’s definitely exceeded them.
I wanted to be a contributor for the team and not
be a liability out there. I wanted to be trusted to
be on the ice in important situations. The players
around me are great players, so that helps.
INCH: Are you just being
modest? I think most people expected you to do more
than just not be a liability out there. JJ: That’s all I was trying for
right off the bat. But my defensive partner, Matt
Hunwick, is so good, he just makes life easy. And
then I’m out there with other guys like Andrew
Cogliano, and they’re all pretty good.
INCH: And you’ve endeared
yourself to the Yost crowd. JJ: Yeah, that’s fun. It makes
the game fun. They’ll start up a chant about
me, and it gives us a little laughter on the bench.
INCH: Do you hear everything
they say? JJ: Yeah, most of the time.
INCH: What about on the
road, when everybody’s yelling at you? JJ: Oh, definitely.
INCH: Is that hard on you?
You’re probably the biggest villain on the ice
whenever you go on the road. JJ: It’s kind of ... I guess it’s
kind of a goal of mine. I expect everybody to be cheering
against me. That means I’m a good player. You
don’t want to go play two games somewhere and
not have anyone realize that I was even out there.
I want to be an impact player. If I have a big hit,
and the boos start, I just laugh at it. It’s
something I expect.
INCH: Do you regret anything
you’ve done this year? Any of the hits you’ve
made? JJ: No.
INCH: You don’t think
you have to rein in your aggressiveness? College hockey
isn’t necessarily as physical as the pros, or
even juniors. JJ: I definitely don’t want to
rein in my aggressiveness. Many coaches have told
me it’s a blessing. It’s a lot easier
to calm someone down than to try to make them aggressive.
I look at it as more of an asset to me.
INCH: I assume you’re
excited about this weekend. Tell us what you expect
out of Michigan State. JJ: I expect it to be like the past
four (MSU is 1-0-3 in the season series). Both teams
will be ready to go, and we’ll have to play
well for 60 minutes – or more with some overtimes.
INCH: Do you guys feel like
you have a lot riding on the weekend? Or are you pretty
secure with your standing? JJ: We know we’re probably somewhat
secure for the NCAAs, but we expect to win the CCHA
Tournament. That’s a goal of ours.
INCH: Is there anything
specific about Michigan State that stands out to you? JJ: We know they’re a good defensive
team, so if we can find a way to score some goals,
we should be OK.
INCH: But you could say
that about any team in the CCHA. Is there a specific
MSU scouting report? JJ: No, not really. They’re big
and strong ... and usually, teams go into a defensive
shell against us, so we know it will be a close game.
INCH: Being from New York,
do you feel strongly about the Michigan-Michigan State
rivalry yet? Sometimes it’s tough for somebody
who doesn’t grow up around it. JJ: They’re definitely our main
rivals, just because of the tradition and everything.
I think its one of the best rivalries around. My mom
is a Michigan grad, and my dad (Jack Sr.) is a Spartan.
He played hockey there.
INCH: He didn’t have
a problem with you going to Michigan? JJ: No, he told me to go to Michigan.
INCH: Why? JJ: I can’t give straight answers
to that, he just said it would be best.
INCH: Most people believe
this will be your only year at Michigan. What do you
say to that? JJ: I’m just having fun right
now, and I’m going to take it one year at a
time. I’m at Michigan right now and having fun,
so that’s about it.
INCH: You heard the “three
more years” chants at Yost last weekend, right? JJ: Yes. That was well-appreciated.
It makes me feel good to have the fans in my corner.
INCH: With some of the struggles
you guys have had this year, has it been a frustrating
season? JJ: When you can’t hold one-goal
leads, it’s frustrating for anyone, not just
Michigan. But we held a one-goal lead Saturday and
got the win, so I really think we’ve turned
it around. We’ve been using the analogy of a
snowball rolling downhill. There’s only a few
games left to have a good season, starting Friday.