If Lars Johansson was surprised by the turn of events that led to his call-up, he wasn’t showing it.
The goaltender has played a bulk of the Rockford IceHogs’ games this season before Saturday, when he was recalled after Corey Crawford was sidelined with appendicitis. And while he’s not sure how much he’ll play while with the Blackhawks, Johansson is ready to benefit from the experience, even if it’s solely in practices.
“I hope to learn a lot,” Johansson said prior to Sunday’s game, the first in which he served as backup goaltender for the Blackhawks. “It’s top players and they’re the best players in the world. I’m excited to face every shot from them and hopefully I can be a little bit better.”
Coach Joel Quenneville said Scott Darling will likely play “a big chunk” of the time Crawford is sidelined. That’s not surprising. But Quenneville said the organization has confidence in Johansson if he’s needed.
“When he came to our organization we thought he had a chance to play at this level,” Quenneville said. “He has size, experience coming up here, a chance to face NHL shooters and you never know. We know things change quickly in our business. We’ve seen over the last few years, everyone using three or four goalies deep. We’ll see with Lars. If he gets a chance to play, he’ll be fine.”
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Johansson has a 6-7-1 record (2.63 goals-against average and .911 save percentage) in his brief time with the Rockford IceHogs. After signing with the Blackhawks in May, Johansson faced the same issue as many who come from across the pond: adjusting to the North American ice. So Johansson got here well ahead of training camp this season to get used to the smaller surface. That, combined with his games in Rockford have Johansson feeling better.
“The shots can come quicker, and it’s tighter, crowded, in front of the net so you have to work a little bit more. But otherwise than that, yeah, the [trapezoid] where I can play the puck that was a bit different in the very beginning,” Johansson said. “It took me a couple of weeks but now you don’t even think about it anymore.”
Johansson will take this experience for whatever it brings. If it’s mostly practice, so be it. If he does get in a game, he’ll handle all the emotions that will come with that and go with it.
“If something were to happen, absolutely I would be nervous, excited for any new thing my whole career. It would be exciting most of all,” Johansson said. “If that happens, it happens. I just have to make myself prepared as good as I can now if that were to happen.”
For the early hours of Sunday afternoon, the game in Soldier Field had the makings of turning into one of those, “First prize, two tickets to a Bears game. Second prize, four tickets.” The Bears lurched their way through the first 28 minutes of their game against the woeful San Francisco 49ers without a point, without even a completed pass.
From that point on, or maybe even at points during that stretch, the Bears (3-9) were demonstrating why John Fox is on track to be their head coach in 2017 (and perhaps why Chip Kelly might very well not be the 49ers’ then). And why the organization is not as down on the team outlook as some outsiders have been.
One team – San Francisco, now 1-11 and losers of 11 straight, had nothing to play for and it showed. The other had equally little at issue, and yet took the yards, the game and ultimately the heart away from the 49ers.
The result was a 26-6 Bears victory, which may not mean a lot to anyone not obsessed with where this dismal season lands the Bears as far as draft position. But the way it happened did matter to a team trying to accomplish something in spite of losing effectively half its starters throughout the first three quarters of the season.
The 49ers played like a team that folds. The Bears obviously again did not, with a core of players that simply do not accept that.
“That’s our identity, the identity of this team,” left tackle Charles Leno said simply. He paused, then added, “No quit.”
Back in training camp the Bears extended the contract of rush linebacker Willie Young. Talking about it at the time, Young was emotional about what that gesture meant to him, and what the Bears now meant to him. Young has been one of the veteran leaders who have established that identity and character. If you don’t like John Fox, Ryan Pace or whomever, then you see what you want to or don’t. But the character has undergone a fundamental shift from the Marc Trestman/Brandon Marshall/Martellus Bennett times.
“We just continue to keep on doing what we’ve been doing,” Young said, adding quickly, “besides the [losing] part. Preparation has been consistent. As you can see in a lot of the close games that we’ve had, it’s just a matter of us finishing.
“It’s not a lack of how hard we play.”
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Winning is all that ultimately matters, and preparation, effort, leadership, blahblahblah doesn’t matter much if the result is as it has been.
But what was starkly evident on Sunday, aside from the failure to fold after a pair of special-teams screw-ups and falling behind 6-0 in the second quarter, it was that the future was on display.
Dismiss the victory because of the level of the competition, but the Bears recovered and pulled away from the 49ers in large part because of players in their first and second NFL years.
Jordan Howard (rookie) rushed for 117 yards and 3 touchdowns. Linebacker Nick Kwiatkoski (rookie) in his third NFL start, against the No. 4 rush offense in the league, had 9 solo tackles. Nose tackle Eddie Goldman (second year) had a sack. Center Cody Whitehair (rookie) is the linchpin of an offensive line that is key to the Bears averaging 4.4 yards per rush and has allowed one sack in the last 74 pass plays. Deon Bush started his second game at safety.
Leonard Floyd (rookie) finished with 2 sacks, giving him 7 for the season despite missing three games to injury. One Floyd sack in Green Bay produced a strip and touchdown; one Sunday resulted in a safety.
"One of my favorite things to watch is how the young boy Floyd wants it so bad,” said defensive end Akiem Hicks. “Just his energy. It excites me so much because I remember how I was when I was a rookie. Just chomping at the bit and wanting to be out there on every single play, and try to make one every play. Knowing that as part of the game you have to rush as a unit, and sometimes you have to give those positions up. I think he's done a great job of doing that and rushing within our system."
And maybe that’s the real point, beyond the record: Whether the Bears’ “system” is getting buy-in, which the effort throughout Sunday and the past several weeks have suggested.
“Hats off to those guys in the locker room,” Fox said. “A lot of the young guys had to answer the bell and they’ve done an outstanding job. It has been a lot of different guys having to step in and they’ve done a great job.”