Role players are crucial to any successful team.
Goals by third- or fourth-liners can often spell the difference in a game between two nationally prominent hockey programs.
University of Maine senior right wing Keith Johnson is hoping he can make a difference this weekend when the Black Bears, ranked fourth in the country, visit the University of North Dakota to take on the No. 3 Fighting Sioux.
Johnson, who plays on a line with Wes Clark and Brent Shepheard, is off to a good start with a shorthanded goal and two assists in Maine’s three games. He entered this season with 20 goals and 10 assists in 104 career games.
He has killed penalties throughout his career but has rarely seen power-play time.
“A lot of times, when you scout the opposing team, he might be the type of player overlooked in their pregame preparations,” said Shepheard. “He can be a difference-maker in this series. He’s one of the guys who has the ability to do that.”
North Dakota coach Dave Hakstol said every team needs players like Johnson who put their egos and statistics aside and focus on being valuable role players for the betterment of the team.
Johnson feels it will be important for the team if he expands his role this season.
“Every year I’ve felt I’ve improved a lot both offensively and defensively,” said Johnson. “Earlier in my career, I knew in order for me to be in the lineup I’d have to work on my defensive game. There were other guys for offense.
“But now that it’s my senior year, I’m forced to step up and, in order for us to be successful, I feel I need to bring some offensive production,” said Johnson, who had offseason surgery to repair an injured left shoulder that bothered him last season.
He has worked on his shot, primarily his release.
“Coach [Tim] Whitehead said to be an effective goal scorer in this league, you’ve got to get your shot off quickly,” said Johnson. “I feel I’ve improved in that area. Being a four-year veteran, I feel more confident when I have the puck. That also helps.”
He said his shorthanded breakaway against Bemidji State in a 7-1 win last Friday “was a big confidence booster for me.”
He has been pleased with his play so far but he said the most important statistic is the team’s 3-0 record.
“That’s all I worry about. As long as we’re winning and I’m contributing in any way, I’m happy,” said Johnson.
He takes a lot of pride in his penalty-killing and said he is looking forward to this series.
In addition to being the nation’s No. 3 ranked team, the Fighting Sioux also “played in one of the better rinks in the country [Engelstad Arena].
“If we could win out there, it would help us in the Pairwise [ratings] at the end of the year. We know they’re one of the best teams in the country,” said Johnson. “They’re going to be tough games. It won’t be easy. But we’re playing well right now.”