"It was really fun to watch Ilya,” Johansson said of his former goaltending partner, now a member of the New York Islanders. “And even though he was eight years younger than me, I learned a lot from him in our three years together. He really helped me to step up my game.”
A native of Avesta, Sweden who clocked several seasons with Frölunda HC prior to a brief stint in the AHL, Johansson made his KHL debut in 2017. CSKA fell to Kazan in the Gagarin Cup Finals that season, but their fortunes reversed one year later—sweeping Avangard Omsk to secure Moscow’s first postseason title since the fall of the Soviet Union. The team was largely expected to repeat their success last season until COVID-19 suspended the playoffs, and were awarded the Russian Championship ex-post.
Johansson topped the league in goals against average (1.59) during the regular season, and was the top-performing netminder in the first round of the Gagarin Cup playoffs. We caught up ahead of Red Army’s hotly-anticipated clash with Lokomotiv to discuss the upcoming goaltending battle, Johansson’s relationship with Sorokin and much more.
Gillian Kemmerer (GK): I saw that CSKA went back to Russian hockey roots and played bandy this week. The nets are huge!
Lars Johansson (LJ): I've done it before with the team. Luckily for the goalies now, we don't go to bandy practice anymore. We stay inside and have some regular hockey goalie practices. My first year, I played bandy outside—and yeah, I have a lot of respect for those goalies. Those goals are way too big, the ball comes fast, and I don't think I saved a single shot my first year when I was out there. It's kind of different and fun—but I'd rather stick to hockey! I have a lot of respect for those guys who manage to make a save there. Sharychenkov and I were allowed to stay home this time and some other goalies showed up to take our place, which was kindof nice.
GK: Sergei Fedorov came with the team, and I know that he gets out on the ice sometimes. Have you ever taken shots from him?
LJ: Yeah, he usually helps with the goalie practice. He likes to be a shooter. A couple of times every week he's out there, and he’s still got a good shot. It’s fun to have that kind of a legend out there, and to talk with him a little bit. He likes to be around the team and help out with whatever he can.
GK: Sergei was pretty merciless to goaltenders back in the day…
LJ: Yeah, he has a good shot. Luckily he's a nice guy, so at goalie practice he makes the goalies feel good and puts it in the glove or something like that!
GK: Lokomotiv Yaroslavl is your next playoff opponent. Their netminder Eddie Pasquale is having a hell of a season. Does that up the ante for you?
LJ: Every game you're competing with the other goalie, and Pasquale has played really well here. Loko will be a fun matchup, and hopefully we both can play good in net, and make it a great battle. Every time you step on the ice, you want to let in one goal less than the other goalie, so that's the mentality. They have a good team, and it will be a fun series to watch, I hope.
GK: How much emphasis do you put on Yaroslavl when preparing to face them?
LJ: They’re a well-coached team and they bring a lot of energy, but we haven't focused that much on them. We've got to prepare ourselves, but we know we're facing a really good team with a lot of skating and a lot of energy, so we just have to be ready. They’ve got some skilled players, so obviously you have to notice when they're on the ice—good goal scorers. It will be some fun games coming up here.
GK: CSKA lost a remarkable number of players after last season, but you are still firmly on top of the West. How did the team make such a seamless transition?
LJ: I don't know, actually. It was hard, like you said. I feel like all of the other players had to take a step forward, and everybody got a little bit more ice time. I think everybody was ready to become better players and have a bigger role in the team. We're always a hardworking team, a well-coached team, and I think with more ice time and more responsibility for a lot of players, they really stepped up. But of course, missing a few of those top players this year, we were a little bit worried coming into the season—but everything has been smooth from the start. I think we're just getting better and better. It has been a fun year, a different year.
GK: How would you describe head coach Igor Nikitin?
LJ: He’s calm and very good on the tactics. Obviously as a goalie, I can't listen too much on the tactics and everything like that, but I kindof do my thing. He's always composed and knows how to get the most out of the players. He's a calm coach, but whenever something needs to be fixed, he tells you about it. And the players have a lot of respect for the guy. Everybody knows what to do, and if you don't do it, he'll tell you! [Laughs] But then you do it. That's what it has been like, and he’s a good coach to play for.
GK: Nikitin is famous for his defensive systems. I would imagine there is some relief playing behind them as a netminder?
LJ: Yes, of course. For all of my seasons here—four seasons—we’ve had great defense and like you said, good structure and good tactics. You kind of know what to expect as a goalie. Everybody knows their role and does it very well. It sure helps my job saving the puck. I know where the shots are supposed to come from and everything like that. But yeah, I'd say it's definitely easier when the defense is organized.
GK: Your former goaltending partner Ilya Sorokin received a flurry of attention in recent seasons—but your stats were on par. Did the hype impact your motivation?
LJ: Ilya was obviously one of the best goalies in Europe when he played here, if not the best, but it was more fun for me. I came over after a tough season in North America, and after I watched him during the first practice, I was like, "Whoa, how am I going to compete with this?" He's amazing and played some of the bigger games, and it helped me to take my first steps over here. I saw that I had to be my absolute best if I wanted to play. We had a great competition on the ice, and a great relationship off the ice too. It was nice to have such a good goalie and prospect who worked hard every day. And for me, like I said, I had a little bit of a tough season before I came over, and it made me get back to competing and trying to play my best everyday.
It was really fun to watch Ilya. And even though he was eight years younger than me, I learned a lot from him in our three years together. He really helped me to step up my game.
GK: What are some of the things that you feel that you learned from each other?
LJ: [Laughs] I don't know what he learned from me, but for sure I learned from him. He's really competitive, and he never wanted to let in any pucks. He work hard every practice, bettering his technique and everything like that. It was more mentally to see how strong and how focused he can be in trying to save every puck in practice. He never lets a shot just go by, and he tries to fight for every puck. That's really something I picked up from him.
GK: Have you touched base at all since the move?
LJ: Yeah, we texted a few times, and then obviously I texted him after his first win there, the first shutout. It's fun watching the highlights and seeing him play—and hopefully his English is getting better too, so I can give him a call after the season and see how he's doing.
GK: Speaking of former Red Army goaltenders, you stand in the same position as Vladislav Tretiak once did. I can imagine that when you signed with CSKA, the history was not lost on you.
LJ: No, of course not. I knew what kind of team it was, and in our first year here, we played in the old rink. You walked into the locker room and there were pictures and banners in the ceiling everywhere. In the beginning, you just soak in what kind of great players played there. It's cool being a part of that. Especially in my first year, you saw a couple of familiar faces around, and Fedorov is still helping out with the team. You still feel like the history is a big part of it.
GK: My favorite question for every goaltender—what is your least favorite goal that you ever let in, and why?
LJ: I’ve let in a lot of goals. I've got to think here.
GK: Your statistics would suggest otherwise.
LJ: I’ve got to say though, I do remember a goal. It was the quarterfinals in the Swedish Hockey League. I let in a goal in overtime that made it 3-3, and then we lost to them of course in Game 7. That kindof stuck with me. We played one more game and then the season was over. I thought to myself like, "Okay, next time someone shoots like that, I'm going to save it."
After that, I took a couple of steps up and actually played better. A bad goal isn't always a bad thing. For me, it was kind of a good thing. I've thought a lot about that goal, and it made me want to become a better goalie—so I would save that puck next time. And obviously, it wasn't fun losing 1-0 against Kazan in the final three years ago…
GK: When did you make the conscious decision to become a goaltender?
LJ: I started from the beginning—right away when I started playing hockey, when I was six or seven years old. You could try out as a goalie, and I wanted to be one right away, I guess. When I used to play with my older brother and his friend, it was always like, "Yeah, you can play with us…if you can get into the net." I started as a goalie in outdoor hockey, and I don't think I was a good skater either, so it suited me well to get into net right away.
GK: Your brother is also a competitive athlete.
LJ: Yeah, or retired now. He's been at the national team level in both orienteering and cross-country skiing.
GK: Do you ever strap on the skis and get a friendly rivalry going?
LJ: No, he's way too good for me. He runs too fast and skis too fast for me. I'm trying to stay away from ever working out with him. I can beat him in the gym, so that’s the only place we can compete. It's always fun. We’re from a sporting family, and tried a lot of sports when we were younger. He liked running and cross-country skiing, and I stayed with hockey. It worked out well for both of us.
GK: How does the KHL compare to other leagues that you’ve played in stylistically?
LJ: I want to say that the KHL is more structured. A lot of tactics compared to the SHL. I was only in the AHL for one year, but it was more individual and a lot of speed. In the KHL, you stick together as a team, you defend as a team, you attack as a team. I feel like there's maybe not as many turnovers in the KHL because people work together better like that. And for goalies, it’s great. It's not as many chances in shots. The margins are small, so you’ve got to be prepared for every chance you get. I want to say it's a little bit more structured, a little bit more of a defensive mentality in the KHL, especially compared to the Swedish league.
GK: Who are the toughest snipers you’ve faced in Russia?
LJ: God, I don't know. There's a lot of them, though. I remember my first year with SKA Saint Petersburg, their powerplay was just ridiculous. Datsyuk, Hersley with the bomb on the blue line, Kovalchuk and Gusev. It was tough. When you're in the box there, you have to be prepared for some good shots. This year, Jaskin is really good. He’s a tough player to play against as a goalie. He's a big guy who likes to get in front of the net. Luckily, we’ve had some of the best snipers with Kaprizov and Grigorenko, so that's always nice to have them on your own team!
GK: I was going to say, perhaps it comes as no surprise to you that Kaprizov just notched his first NHL hat trick.
LJ: No, not at all. He was outstanding here for the two years I played with him, and I feel like we all knew he was going to do great right away over there. It's fun to watch him dominate as much there as he did over here.
GK: What has been the best part of living in Moscow with your kids? Favorite foods, favorite sights?
LJ: For Russian food, my favorite is probably beef stroganoff. I like that. To be honest, I don't see much more than the playground! [Laughs] But obviously, Red Square is beautiful, especially during New Years with all the lights and stuff like that. It's too bad that I couldn't go this year with coronavirus, but at that time of year, going down to Red Square during New Years is definitely a favorite thing to do.
GK: What is the funniest prank you've ever witnessed in a locker room?
LJ: Prank? I don't know. It's just the classics with shaving cream in the face or whatever. Taped up gloves before someone's going out to practice. I don't know, I can't think. There haven’t been many pranks lately. We've got to get that started again.
GK: Kaprizov always struck me as a bit of a jokester.
LJ: Yeah—he was always a great guy with a great smile. I don't know if he did that many pranks, but maybe I missed them because I don't speak any Russian!
GK: The jokes were on you, and you didn't know it.
LJ: Exactly, that's why everybody was pointing and laughing at me.
GK: Honestly, I doubt it. They need you too much, can't risk getting you angry…
LJ: Well, we’ll see.