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DALLAS – Ross Johnston has an easy role model for his latest role with the Islanders, for however long it lasts, in captain Anders Lee.
The mammoth Johnston, who’d likely be pigeon-holed as a one-dimensional enforcer in bygone NHL eras, started his second straight game on top-line center Mathew Barzal’s left wing along with Josh Bailey as the Islanders opened a three-game road trip on Saturday night against the Stars at American Airlines Center.
Johnston’s unlikely assignment worked well enough in Thursday night’s 3-2 win over Vegas at NYCB Live’s Nassau Coliseum as he logged a season-high 12:58 of ice time. He parked his 6-5, 235-pound frame at the Golden Knights’ crease frequently and had two good scoring chances in the first period, nearly tipping in Barzal’s shot from the blue line and later just missing on a backhander after collecting the rebound of defenseman Johnny Boychuk’s shot.
“I think it’s kind of easy,” Johnston said when asked how he tried to blend his physical game with the playmaking abilities of Barzal and Bailey. “I kind of watch the way Leesy does it and guys like that. You go to the hard area. You see where Barzal threw a few pucks to the net and they were laying there. You get to those areas, there’s bounding to be a few opportunities.”
Saturday’s repeat turn in the lineup means Johnston has dressed for half of the Islanders’ 28 games after being a healthy scratch for seven of the previous eight games before Thursday.
He entered Saturday with one goal, a hard-fought one at the crease in a 5-3 win over the Flyers at the Coliseum on Oct. 27. Johnston had two-thirds of a Gordie Howe hat trick in that one, also fighting Chris Stewart.
Johnston had three of the Islanders’ six fights this season entering Saturday and led the team with 35 penalty minutes. As his chance on the top line shows, both coach Barry Trotz and Johnston believe there’s more to his game than pure physicality.
Lee, a 6-3, 231-pound left wing who scored a career-high 40 goals two seasons ago, has been a fixture among the Islanders’ top-six forwards and has spent much of this season on Barzal’s line. Johnston is trying to follow his example.
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“Yeah, there’s a delicate balance,” Johnston said. “In today’s NHL, you do have to play hockey, too. When the physicality picks up, I can do that, too.”
“Ross can skate and do a lot of things that Anders does,” Trotz added. “Play at the net. Separate people from pucks. Stuff like that. I thought Barzy got some extra pucks [on Thursday] because Ross got in there and he can skate pretty well.”
Trotz’ unorthodox use of Johnston on Barzal’s top line is not unprecedented. He molded Tom Wilson, known primarily earlier in his career for his at-times dangerous physical play, into a top-six forward for the Capitals. And Dave Semenko, one of the NHL’s most feared enforcers, skated on Wayne Gretzky’s wing in a bodyguard role with the Oilers in the 1980s.
Trotz said he was trying to balance his lines and get them to play a more focused, simpler game by getting pucks to the crease.
Whatever the reason, Johnston said he was happy to receive the opportunity.
“You’ve kind of got to trust the process,” Johnston said. “If you come in and play well, you make the next decision harder on them.”
Barzal and Bailey certainly aren’t trying to change his game, though.
“I’m not going to pull out any toe-drags,” Johnston said. “They said just control the puck, give it to us, drive the net and see what happens.”