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NHL Exhibition: Rangers vs. Islanders, Saturday 7 p.m., Webster Bank Arena As Johnston’s game grows, so does his ice time

September 22, 2018

EAST MEADOW, N.Y. — He was the minor-league tough guy a year ago at this time, with one late-season NHL game on his resume, not even two dozen points in about 100 AHL games.

Things changed a little for Ross Johnston in the past year. A midseason call-up put him in the NHL for the second half with the New York Islanders. The team signed him to a four-year contract this summer.

Now at the Islanders’ Northwell Health Ice Center practice facility, where he and the team are going through training camp, his picture adorns the wall above the stands at the main rink, between veteran goalie Thomas Greiss and 40-goal-scorer Anders Lee.

“(That second half) was a very exciting experience, a great opportunity for myself and my family,” Johnston said earlier this week. “I learned lots coming to the NHL rink every day, practicing with NHL players. You pick up little things. I tried to adapt them into my game.”

Johnston was set to play Friday night for the Islanders in an exhibition game at Allentown, Pa., so he might not be with them when they play a preseason game Saturday night back in Bridgeport, against the New York Rangers.

That game is at Webster Bank Arena, where Johnston, 24, established himself as a pro with the Bridgeport Sound Tigers, the Islanders’ top affiliate.

He played 38 games for the Sound Tigers last season, all but one of them before the Islanders called for him in January. He played 24 NHL games after that, putting up six points and receiving 62 penalty minutes, 27 of them in a game against the Washington Capitals.

Barry Trotz remembered that game, when Johnston fought longtime Islanders nemesis Tom Wilson at the end of a nasty shift between the players. Then coach of the Capitals, eventual Stanley Cup champions, Trotz took over the Islanders this summer.

“Ross has been a guy that actually, seeing the skill set that he has,” Trotz said, “sometimes you see him one game, ‘oh, he’s tough’; I think he actually got thrown out of our game, to be exact — my impression (then) is not what I’m seeing. He’s got a pretty good skill set.”

Johnston’s game took a clear jump last season. It helped earn him power-play time with Bridgeport, putting his 6-foot-5, 232-pound frame in front of the net.

“Summer for me is always focusing on my lower body strength. The more I strengthen my lower body away from the rink, the more I can incorporate it into my skating on the ice,” Johnston said.

“That’s what I focused on. So far I feel good on the ice. Guess that means it was a productive summer, so far.”

His skating was noticeably improved last year, and both he and coaches then emphasized it wasn’t about speed, but keeping his feet moving, helping him engage physically and play at a quicker pace.

That pace picked up even more at the next level.

“He’s tough as they come. He’s got some game, but he’s got to keep growing his game, and he’s trying to do that,” Trotz said.

Johnston is willing to do that, he said, trying to be a full-time NHL player and earn his four-year, $4 million, one-way (which means he’ll earn the same money in the NHL or AHL) contract.

“It’s peace of mind. It’s great for myself, being able to go into each summer knowing where I’m going to be, it’s big for me,” Johnston said.

“The organization, it’s a big leap of faith. I need to work hard to prove I’m worth the term. I take a lot of pride in living up to the expectation to make sure I’m doing everything they ask of me.”

mfornabaio@ctpost.com; @fornabaioctp; blog.ctnews.com/fornabaio

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