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Winterhawks' goal: fewer penalties

Coach wants Ross, others to play with more discipline
by: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT Brad Ross (left) celebrates his opening goal in a game against Saskatoon at Memorial Coliseum.

Too many bad penalties during the 72-game Western Hockey League season can negatively impact a team, Portland coach and general manager Mike Johnston says.

So, Johnston has asked his team to take fewer minor penalties.

'I believe you have to come out with more power plays, where you could get the extra goal that makes the difference,' Johnston says.

Last season, according to the coach/GM, Portland players took too many minor penalties. Main culprits included Riley Boychuk, who has since signed to play pro, forward Brad Ross and the defensemen.

Ross has stepped up his game this season, playing with more discipline. Through Tuesday, he had nine goals and 13 assists and was tied for the team scoring lead with Ty Rattie (11 goals, 11 assists). And, Ross had only 42 penalty minutes in 17 games, a slightly better rate than the past two seasons.

The 19-year-old Ross, a 6-1, 185-pound Toronto Maple Leafs draft choice, has been in occasional trouble for big hits that draw suspensions, as well. Johnston says the NHL has been clamping down on hits that lead to concussions - and when the NHL does something, the WHL follows suit.

'They're teaching guys to hit better and receive hits better,' Johnston says. 'He'll have to be careful with how he hits. He'll have to learn at this level to be good at the pro level.

'I think he's been really good. Still hasn't been suspended, knock on wood.'

With Ryan Johansen and Nino Niederreiter among the players lost from last season, Ross needed to step up and be a more consistent, complete player. Johnston says he sees maturity in Ross.

'I think his game's evolving and changing,' Johnston says. 'It's been positive. He's more focused.'

• The Columbus Blue Jackets made it official this week: They will keep center Johansen, who had two game-winning goals in his first nine games with the NHL club. When he plays his 10th game this week, Johansen's guaranteed rookie contract kicks in.

Johnston says he talked with the Blue Jackets last weekend 'and it was still 50-50 ' whether they were going to keep Johansen or send him back to the Winterhawks.

'Every player's dream is to make it to the NHL, and we're very happy for Ryan,' Johnston says. 'He's worked incredibly hard to get to this point, and that work ethic will help him succeed at the next level.'

Columbia general manager Scott Howson told the Columbus Dispatch: 'There have been moments where he's looked very good and moments where he's looked like a 19-year-old finding his way in the NHL. But he was better in game nine than he was in game one.'

Niederreiter is getting ready to make his season debut with the New York Islanders after nursing a groin injury. The Islanders are expected to keep Niederreiter after he plays nine games and the rookie contract situation comes up; Niederreiter stayed with the Islanders last year for early-season games before being sent back to Portland.

'Since Day One, we were fairly sure the Islanders were going to keep him,' Johnston says.

• Winterhawk defenseman Derrick Pouliot's NHL stock remains solid. Although the official ratings haven't come out, three NHL.com writers had the 6-0, 180-pound defenseman from Weyburn, Saskatchewan, rated in the first round for the 2012 draft.

'Derrick's been good,' Johnston says. 'He's had a lot of up-and-down play, but he's been more consistent on this (17-day, nine-game) road trip.'

Johnston likes Pouliot's competitiveness, but says Pouliot needs to add strength. What does he need to work on?

'Mainly with him it's his decision-making with the puck,' Johnston says. 'He's a very good passer and creative, but sometimes he tries to get too creative and turns over the puck.'

• The Winterhawks, who were 8-7-1-1 entering Wednesday's game at Kamloops, will wrap up their long trip with games at Kelowna on Friday and Saturday.

Johnston says the team 'has played quite well.' Portland lost at Edmonton and Red Deer ('we were the better team'), won at Calgary, lost at Medicine Hat on a late power-play goal, won at Lethbridge and lost at Kootenay ('we were fatigued').

Winger Joey Baker missed the Kootenay game, and star winger Sven Bartschi didn't play in the first six games of the trip because of a hip injury. Bartschi should be back soon.

The Hawks return to home ice Nov. 11 and 12 against Spokane at the Rose Garden.