The career highs in goals, assists and points Justin Johnson achieved last season did not alter his sense of his own hockey identity.
That's because he remembers that he also set career highs in fights and penalty minutes, and led the ECHL in both categories.
And with the Alaska Aces facing more roster cuts before the regular season commences next week, Johnson didn't try to be anything he isn't in the club's 4-3 ECHL overtime exhibition loss to the Kalamazoo Wings at Sullivan Arena.
Johnson, the former UAA and Aces winger from Anchorage, fought two seconds into his first shift, delivered several solid hits, skated with his usual kinetic energy, helped create a few scoring chances and made his case for a roster spot.
"You have to show them what you can do,'' Johnson said. "If you wait around, you only have yourself to blame.
"I want my teammates to respect me. The only way to do that is pick (Kalamazoo's) toughest guy and lay it on the line.''
The 6-foot-1, 215-pound Johnson, who played briefly for the Aces twice early in his pro career, tangled with Kalamazoo winger Olivier Legault (6-5, 244) 70 seconds into the game and acquitted himself well. Neither guy is a stranger to dropping the gloves. Johnson racked 31 fighting majors and 259 penalty minutes last season, primarily with ECHL Cincinnati. Legault fought 12 times in the International Hockey League last season and 23 times the season before that.
Aces first-year coach Brent Thompson, who thought his club's performance was generally sloppy, said Johnson's effort was one of the bright spots in the opener of a two-game, preseason series that wraps tonight. The games are played on a pink ice sheet as part of the Aces' "Paint The Rink Pink'' fundraiser for local groups in the fight against cancer.
"J.J. made huge strides in a positive direction tonight,'' Thompson said. "He finished his hits, he played his role, he created (scoring) chances and energy.
"For me, he played the perfect game for J.J. There was nothing more he could have done to impress me.''
Johnson, who last season bagged 13 goals and 23 points in 59 ECHL games, knows he's trying to crack a lineup that, on paper, appears loaded. The Aces have 15 forwards in camp and Thompson wants to keep 12 for the regular season. Between guys who obviously have roster spots secured and guys whose NHL or American Hockey League contracts make them almost certain to be kept, there are few obvious "open'' spots among forwards competing for jobs with the defending Kelly Cup runners-up.
"There's a good team here always,'' Johnson said. "You go sit in the locker room and look to your left and look to your right, and everyone has a resume.
"Everyone recognizes this is a good team and there are going to be some tough decisions made.''
After falling behind 3-1 early in the second period Wednesday, the Aces rallied to forge a 3-3 tie on goals 1:48 apart from returning forwards Luke Erickson and Lance Galbraith midway through the period. Erickson deflected Nick Tuzzolino's shot from the point and Galbraith scored off John Lammers' smooth pass as the two worked a give-and-go off the rush on a power play.
Aces goaltender Sebastian Dahm (17 saves on 18 shots), who as planned replaced Kevin Nastiuk (11 saves on 14 shots) shortly before the halfway mark of regulation, kept the Wings at bay to send the game into overtime. Julien Ellis (33 saves), the former ECHL Victoria tender, did likewise.
Kalamazoo struck 61 seconds into overtime when Aces defenseman T.J. Fast, who otherwise played well, fell in the neutral zone while trying to retrieve the puck. That created a 2-on-1 for the Wings, who enter the ECHL after moving up from the IHL. Sam Ftorek accepted Rick Cleaver's crisp pass and labeled a dart over Dahm's shoulder and underneath the crossbar, to the dismay of 4,690 fans.
That sent the Aces home losers. Still, Johnson appeared to make a strong argument for winning a job.
"(Thompson) took a leap of faith and took me in,'' said Johnson. "I want to please my coach. I know how that sounds, but I want my coach to look at me and always know he's going to get my best.''
Find Doyle Woody's blog at adn.com/hockeyblog or call him at 257-4335.
Kalamazoo 2 1 0 1 -- 4
Aces 1 2 0 0 -- 3
First Period -- 1, Aces, Stefanishion (Galbraith), 1:08; 2, Kalamazoo, O'Connor, 1:33; 3, Kalamazoo, Daavettila, 3:51. Penalties -- Johnson, Aces, major (fighting), 1:10; Legault, Kalamazoo, major (fighting), 1:10; C. Hemingway, Aces (hooking), 2:16; Jurynec, Kalamazoo, double minor (roughing), 3:09; Landry, Kalamazoo (tripping), 5:48; Burt, Aces (slashing), 8:37; Morrow, Kalamazoo (delay of game), 14:14; Tuzzolino, Aces (high-sticking), 20:00.
Second Period -- 4, Kalamazoo, Fournier (McGinnis, Lloyd), 2:03; 5, Aces, Erickson (Tuzzolino), 9:49; 6, Aces, Galbraith (Lammers, Martin), 11:37 (pp). Penalties -- Stefanishion, Aces (roughing), 2:03; Stefanishion, Aces, major-game misconduct (boarding), 6:12; Featherstone, Kalamazoo (slashing), 6:12; Landry, Kalamazoo (interference), 9:44; Moore, Aces, major (fighting), 11:38; Legault, Kalamazoo, major (fighting), 11:38; Tuzzolino, Aces (delay of game), 14:24.
Third Period -- None. Penalties -- Galbraith, Aces (roughing), 5:39; Tuzzolino, Aces (roughing), 5:39; Legault, Kalamazoo (roughing), 5:39; Burt, Aces (holding), 9:27; Green, Aces (cross-checking), 12:02; Combs, Aces (roughing), 15:09; Lloyd, Kalamazoo, double minor, served by Sinisalo (roughing, unsportsmanlike conduct), 15:09.
Overtime -- 7, Kalamazoo, Ftorek (Cleaver), 1:01. Penalties -- None.
Shots on goal -- Kalamazoo 9-9-12-2--32. Aces 13-8-13-2--36.
Power-play Opportunities -- Kalamazoo 0 of 9; Aces 1 of 6.
Goalies -- Kalamazoo, Ellis (36 shots-33 saves). Aces, Nastiuk (14-11); Dahm, 9:44 second period (18-17).
A -- 4,690 (6,251). T - 2:25.
Referee -- Andy Thiessen. Linesmen - Steve Glines, Chad Colliander.