UND defenseman Johnson savors first-career goal

GRAND FORKS – It was 12:37 a.m. back in Grand Forks when Casey Johnson wired a wrist shot into the upper corner of the net for his first-career goal, giving the Fighting Hawks a 3-2 overtime victory at Alaska Anchorage.
His family didn’t miss it.
Johnson’s parents, aunts, uncles and even his grandmother stayed up past midnight Saturday, Oct. 7, to watch the conclusion of the University of North Dakota’s game.
When Johnson called his parents after the dramatic goal, they answered the phone by cheering.
“It was nice to see how much support I get,” the Grand Forks native said.
Even the next day as the team traveled home from Alaska, Johnson was getting bombarded with text messages.
“I had to charge my phone a couple times at the airport,” he said.
The goal — and the opening weekend as a whole — was validation for how far Johnson has come in one calendar year.
When he was a freshman, the UND coaching staff limited Johnson’s ice time and made sure he was paired with star defenseman Tucker Poolman for most of his shifts on opening weekend against Canisius.
Slowly, as the season progressed, that changed.
Johnson said he noticed during the second half of the season, he was paired with Christian Wolanin for more and more of his shifts.
“They wouldn’t just put me out there with Tucker,” Johnson said. “So they trusted me more.”
UND coach Brad Berry said he’s noticed another step early this season.
“Some of his reads are aggressive, but they’re in confidence, knowing he can do that,” Berry said. “He’s continuing to grow in our group and continuing to show us coaches what he can do.”
Johnson will enter this weekend’s series against St. Lawrence (7:37 p.m. Friday, Oct. 13, 7:07 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 14, Ralph Engelstad Arena) as UND’s leading scorer with one goal and one assist. That’s unlikely to last very long, but Berry says Johnson is starting to show some of his offensive instincts.
“One of the biggest things is his body composition,” Berry said. “He’s a bigger body defenseman. He’s a heavy body and uses it to his full advantage. He has a good stick, he plays a physical game and now he’s starting to make reads and plays that are helping on the offensive side.”
Bast nearing return
UND freshman defenseman Gabe Bast has been sidelined as he recovers from offseason shoulder surgery, but he’s inching closer to a return.
Bast has been a full participant at practice this week. Although it seems unlikely that he suits up Friday night against St. Lawrence, his progress could put him in the mix for next weekend’s showdown against rival Minnesota or the following week’s trip to Colorado College.
“I think he’s getting closer,” UND coach Brad Berry said. “He practiced yesterday and competed in all the drills, which is a good sign. He’s getting closer and closer. Any time you come off of an injury and go through rehab, you want to make sure you’re 100 percent before you get in a game. But to answer your question, I think it will probably be short-term, rather than longterm, before he gets in the lineup.”
Bast was a standout defenseman at the junior level, who drew comparisons to former UND great and Vancouver Canuck Troy Stecher. Bast and Stecher both are undersized, competitive defensemen, who came to UND from the Penticton Vees in the British Columbia Hockey League.
More tough calls
Berry and the coaching staff have debating forward lines all week, trying to figure out who will be in the lineup and who will be out.
Last Saturday, highly touted rookies Grant Mismash and Jordan Kawaguchi sat out during UND’s 3-2 overtime win against Alaska Anchorage.
The coaching staff wants to get Mismash and Kawaguchi back in the lineup and is discussing different possibilities.
When asked about the difficulty of decisions at forward, Berry shook his head.
“It’s been unbelievable as far as coming in here daily and going through different options,” he said. “At the end of the day, it is a positive to have depth. Every team wants it. It’s just making sure that you do the right thing and make sure you have a reason for doing it. We have a group that’s an understanding group. When you’re in the lineup, you have to be able to perform well and compete. And the guys who are out of it: ‘How do I get back in it? What do I do on a daily basis to get back in it?’
“So, we have a very understanding group, but it’s a perfect storm at this time of year because we have no injuries (at forward). We have a full amount of bodies available. It’s one of those things that’s going to help us in the end, not hurt us.”