Ross Johnston wants to make his NHL playoff debut this season, even if the hub city bubbles will be different from any previous postseason.
The Islanders’ burly left wing is in a training camp battle for playing time with several other forwards. On Monday, Johnston earned his best opportunity so far to state his case.
Coach Barry Trotz shifted Johnston onto Brock Nelson’s line with Josh Bailey. There’s little doubt those two will be in the lineup for Game 1 of the Islanders’ best-of-five qualifying series against the Panthers on Aug. 1 in Toronto.
“Coming into this camp, everyone is on an even playing field,” Johnston said after the second and final week of Training Camp 2.0 began at Northwell Health Ice Center in East Meadow. “For the guys that are in and out of the lineup, it’s a fresh opportunity and a clean slate to prove yourself within these two weeks that we have to work our way into a lineup spot and at least make it difficult for the coaches to decide who they want to put in for that first game.”
The 6-5, 235-pound Johnston, 26, played in a career-high 32 games before the season was paused on March 12 because of the COVID-19 pandemic, with three goals, one assist and a career-high 78 penalty minutes.
Anthony Beauvillier had been playing on Nelson’s wing but Trotz moved him onto Jean-Gabriel Pageau’s line with Derick Brassard for Monday’s practice. Tom Kuhnhackl, Michael Dal Colle and, briefly, Kieffer Bellows, have also received time working on Pageau’s line during camp.
Trotz said he liked what he saw on Monday after criticizing his team for a sloppy, three-period scrimmage on Sunday.
“I think everyone may be in the same spot physically, it’s mentally where they are,” Trotz said. “Ross wants to be in the lineup, so he’s taken advantage. He’s got some confidence. I think there is a trust with me. I’ve tried to reward a couple of guys in practice.
“Ross gets into people,” Trotz added. “He’s really good defensively. He gets on you offensively. He puts a little heat on you. They don’t like the big train coming at you. He’s settling in as a good pro and he’s had a good camp so far.”
But Johnston was not in the lineup for nine of the Islanders’ final 10 games before the season was paused. He did not play at all in either of the Islanders’ playoff series last season, a four-game sweep of the Penguins before being swept in four games by the Hurricanes.
“I don’t have too much playoff experience,” Johnston said. “But I think it’s kind of foreign for everyone, what we’re going into.”
No fans will be in the seats either in Toronto or Edmonton as the players will be quarantined in an arena/hotel bubble.
Johnston, never shy of protecting his teammates as an enforcer, was asked whether being in a relatively quiet building might temper what he says to opponents after the whistle, lest it be heard on broadcasts.
“That might be something I’ve got to feel out,” he said. “It’s something that a lot of us haven’t really gone through since minor hockey. I guess we’ll have to adapt as we go along.”
Johnston was also asked whether players might shy away from fighting in deference to COVID-19 concerns.
“I don’t really know how to answer that,” Johnston said. “Not too many guys know what to expect in the environment we’re going into. If the fighting stuff comes up and things get edgy, that’s part of hockey. It’s not on my mind but, at the end of the day, things happen.”